Sin

The tree bore the efflorescence of October apples
like the bush that burned with fire and was not consumed.

The wind blew in cold sweet gusts,
and the burning taste of fresh snow came with the gradual dark

down through the goldenrod. The blue and scarlet sky
was gently losing its color,

as if from use.
The towers and telephone poles rose in the distance.

And a decline
of spirit, hearing, all senses; where the mind no longer rests,

dwells, intrigue; and Satan’s quick perspective of what lies
ahead,
was foretold by the springing back of a bough.

— We’ll never know the all of it: nature’s manifesto,
the sleight-of-hand in God’s light, the invisible,

visible, sinned against, absolved, no matter the enormity
of trying, and Eve’s help.

But come just before sunrise and see and taste again
the apple tree coming into fire

— shadow-glyphs on the crystallized grasses,
geese surging above the loblolly pine, the smell of sap —

as if willingly through its long life
it held on to one unclarified passion and grew and regretted
nothing.

—Carol Frost

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Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 3:40 PM  Comments (2)  
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Secrets of the wood

FROM The Woods by Harlan Coben

Prologue

SEE MY FATHER WITH THAT SHOVEL

There are tears streaming down his face. An awful, guttural sob forces its way up from deep in his lungs and out through his lips. He raises the shovel up and strikes the ground. The blade rips into the earth like it’s wet flesh.

I am eighteen years old, and this is my most vivid memory of my father him, in the woods, with that shovel. He doesn’t know I’m watching. I hide behind a tree while he digs. He does it with a fury, as though the ground has angered him and he is seeking vengeance.

I have never seen my father cry before not when his own father died, not when my mother ran off and left us, not even when he first heard about my sister, Camille. But he is crying now. He is crying with out shame. The tears cascade down his face in a freefall. The sobs echo through the trees.

This is the first time I’ve spied on him like this. Most Saturdays he would pretend to be going on fishing trips, but I never really believed that. I think I always knew that this place, this horrible place, was his secret destination.

Because, sometimes, it is mine too.

I stand behind the tree and watch him. I will do this eight more times. I never interrupt him. I never reveal myself. I think he doesn’t know that I am there. I am sure of it, in fact. And then one day, as he heads to his car, my father looks at me with dry eyes and says, “Not to day, Paul. Today I go alone.”

I watch him drive off. He goes to those woods for the last time.

On his deathbed nearly two decades later, my father takes my hand.

He is heavily medicated. His hands are rough and calloused. He used them his whole life, even in the flusher years in a country that no longer exists. He has one of those tough exteriors where all the skin looks baked and hard, almost like his own tortoise shell. He has been in immense physical pain, but there are no tears.

He just closes his eyes and rides it out.

My father has always made me feel safe, even now, even though I am now an adult with a child of my own. We went to a bar three months ago, when he was still strong enough. A fight broke out. My father stood in front of me, readying to take on anyone who came near me. Still. That is how it is. I look at him in the bed. I think about those days in the woods. I think about how he dug, how he finally stopped, how I thought he had given up after my mother left.

“Paul?”

My father is suddenly agitated.

I want to beg him not to die, but that wouldn’t be right. I had been here before. It doesn’t get better, not for anyone.

“Its okay, Dad,” I tell him. “It’s all going to be okay.”

He does not calm down. He tries to sit up. I want to help him, but he shakes me off. He looks deep into my eyes and I see clarity, or maybe that is one of those things that we make ourselves believe at the end. A final false comfort.

One tear escapes his eye. I watch it slowly slide down his cheek.

“Paul,” my father says to me, his voice still thick with a Russian accent. “We still need to find her.”

“We will, Dad.”

He checks my face again. I nod, assure him. But I don’t think that he is looking for assurance. I think, for the first time, he is looking for guilt.

“Did you know?” he asks, his voice barely audible.

I feel my entire body quake, but I don’t blink, don’t look away. I wonder what he sees, what he believes. But I will never know. Because then, right then, my father closes his eyes and dies.

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Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 12:19 PM  Comments (2)  
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One Filament Against the Firmament

Most days Group V. practiced on seeing through

Prisms because of the way they bend the light

They are considered the first marker of advanced

Sight tests had been conducted on them all as

Children these ones could examine a dewdrop

Perched on a furred leaf & not cry when it fell to

The ground had no more data to give though later

The books would be buried to give us something new

To discover God could not be a matter of spaceships

The way must be found through the mind &

The eyes are distractible as the Leader discovered one night

In a stairwell when one lightbulb overhead managed

To distract him from the sky outside he decided

That finding beauty pointless might actually be the

Point at something & then see past it became

The first lesson to lessen attachment to things put

Here to distract us of course there were detractors

Who thought the fingers or tongue would work just

Fine lines of personality scar the fingertips though

& tastebuds cannot belie their bias only the mind

& the eyes could absorb indefinitely pupils practiced

Not shrinking at the sun it was an honor to go blind

Trying to ignore the tiny creatures that float across

Our eyes was a task that drove hundreds crazy because

It didn’t make sense that something tiny & see-through

Could lure the gaze away from the Taj Majal or a Monet

Which they practiced in front of because of the lovely

Colors & affection for them were eliminated later as were

All forms of luxury like being able to see your family

Across the breakfast table they all disappeared one by

One day everybody woke up alone & couldn’t find

Each other & they all would have died from standing

Still there was one girl who hadn’t been able to stop loving

The word marshmallow & one boy who still had a favorite

Color slowly seeped back into the world & a new group

Formed to research why it had left but it never became clear

Matthea Harvey


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Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 10:43 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Four Masks

The mask I see in the mirror:

A woman who has come to love silence,

who sees life through prisms, hexagonal

planes like the vision

of flying insects, so much color

breaking against reason. Thin

eyebrows. Nose off center.

The mask I wore for my mother:

Bright in the way of silk roses,

more than once it threw dinner

crashing to the floor and yet

was afraid to disobey.

At night it stood at the top of the long stairs

just to hear her talking.

The mask I swore my mother wore:

Small clouds like lace

on the brow. Eyepieces

I couldn’t see through.

Even her small shoulders

would make me cry. When she died

I saw her face.

The mask I passed on to my children:

Comes late for dinner

and leaves early, clears the dishes quickly.

This mask

is all relatives alive or dead,

drunk, sober, or beautiful. Oh God, yes,

at least beautiful.

Everyone at the table finds a window,

stares intently through.

—Cortney Davis

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Published in: on June 2, 2010 at 10:14 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Listeners

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveler,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveler’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveler;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his gray eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveler’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head —
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

—Walter De La Mare

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Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 10:09 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Final Sorrow

FROM East Of Eden by John Steinbeck

OF ALL THE CHILDREN Una had the least humor. She met and married an intense dark man—a man whose fingers were stained with chemicals, mostly silver nitrate. He was one of those men who live in poverty so that their lines of questioning may continue. His question was about photography. He believed that the exterior world could be transferred to paper—not in the ghost shadings of black and white but in the colors the human eye perceives.

His name was Anderson and he had little gift for communication. Like most technicians, he had a terror and a contempt for speculation. The inductive leap was not for him. He dug a step and pulled himself up one single step, the way a man climbs the last shoulder of a mountain. He had great contempt, born of fear, for the Hamiltons, for they all half believed they had wings—and they got some bad falls that way.

Anderson never fell, never slipped back, never flew. His steps moved slowly, slowly upward, and in the end, it is said, he found what he wanted—color film. He married Una, perhaps, because she had little humor, and this reassured him. And because her family frightened and embarrassed him, he took her away to the north, and it was black and lost where he went—somewhere on the borders of Oregon. He must have lived a very primitive life with his bottles and papers.

Una wrote bleak letters without joy but also without self-?pity. She was well and she hoped her family was well. Her husband was near to his discovery.

And then she died and her body was shipped home.

I never knew Una. She was dead before I remember, but George Hamilton told me about it many years later and his eyes filled with tears and his voice croaked in the telling.

“Una was not a beautiful girl like Mollie,” he said. “But she had the loveliest hands and feet. Her ankles were as slender as grass and she moved like grass. Her fingers were long and the nails narrow and shaped like almonds. And Una had lovely skin too, translucent, even glowing.

“She didn’t laugh and play like the rest of us. There was something set apart about her. She seemed always to be listening. When she was reading, her face would be like the face of one listening to music. And when we asked her any question, why, she gave the answer, if she knew it—not pointed up and full of color and ‘maybes’ and ‘it-?might-?bes’ the way the rest of us would. We were always full of bull. There was some pure simple thing in Una,” George said.

“And then they brought her home. Her nails were broken to the quick and her fingers cracked and all worn out. And her poor, dear feet—” George could not go on for a while, and then he said with the fierceness of a man trying to control himself, “Her feet were broken and gravel-?cut and briar-?cut. Her dear feet had not worn shoes for a long time. And her skin was rough as rawhide.

“We think it was an accident,” he said. “So many chemicals around. We think it was.”

But Samuel thought and mourned in the thought that the accident was pain and despair.

Una’s death struck Samuel like a silent earthquake. He said no brave and reassuring words, he simply sat alone and rocked himself. He felt that it was his neglect had done it.

And now his tissue, which had fought joyously against time, gave up a little. His young skin turned old, his clear eyes dulled, and a little stoop came to his great shoulders. Liza with her acceptance could take care of tragedy; she had no real hope this side of Heaven. But Samuel had put up a laughing wall against natural laws, and Una’s death breached his battlements. He became an old man.

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Published in: on May 20, 2010 at 2:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Filling Station


Oh, but it is dirty!
–this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it’s a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color–
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO–SO–SO–SO

to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

—Elizabeth Bishop

____________________

Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1911, but spent part of her childhood with her Canadian grandparents after her father’s death and mother’s hospitalization. Of her childhood she noted, “My relatives all felt so sorry for this child that they tried to do their very best. And I think they did. I lived with my grandparents in Nova Scotia, then with the ones in Worcester, in Massachusetts, very briefly and got terribly sick. This was when I was six and seven…. Then I lived with my mother’s older sister in Boston, she was devoted to me — she had no children. My relationship with my relatives — I was always sort of a guest, and I think I’ve always felt like that.”

Elizabeth Bishop won virtually every poetry prize in the country although she insisted, “They don’t mean too much.” Her first book, North & South, won the Houghton Mifflin Poetry Award for 1946. In 1955, she received the Pulitzer Prize for a volume containing North & South and A Cold Spring. Her next book of poetry, Questions of Travel (1965), won the National Book Award and was followed by The Complete Poems in 1969. Geography III (1976) received the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1976, Miss Bishop became both the first American and the first woman to win the Books Abroad/Neustadt Prize for Literature.

Elizabeth Bishop died on October 6, 1979. A new edition of her poems, The Complete Poems, 1927-1979, was published in early 1983, and The Collected Prose was published in 1984.

Of her work, Robert Lowell remarked, “Elizabeth Bishop is the contemporary poet that I admire most …. There’s a beautiful completeness to all of Bishop’s poetry. I don’t think anyone alive has a better eye than she had: The eye that sees things and the mind behind the eye that remembers.”

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Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 2:58 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Sonata

At ninety, the piano plays him.
He’s like a man by the sea
the wind knows it must wear down,
sculpt to a profile,
then fill out again,
billowing his sleeves and trouser legs
into a younger musculature.
Over and again, the music grays
then reddens, the part
in its hair shifting left to center
until those few blades of sea grass
are all that’s left to be
combed over the rocks,
and the thin fingers skitter,
leaving impressions in the keyboard
that waves wash level,
cleansing its audience of shell halves,
now glistening, now scoured dry.
And the house, the house just outside
this sonata’s frame,
begs him to turn around
to pick his way back
along the stony runner,
his hands stopping his ears.
But, at ninety, the music plays the piano,
which plays the man, who finally, fearlessly,
plays himself, which is the landscape,
which is everything that ends.

—Mark Cox

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Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 1:42 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Straggler

FROM The Luftwaffe War Diaries by Cajus Bekker

Still over Holland the Americans changed course to the south, and crossed Belgium at 20,000 feet. Then, shortly before reaching the German frontier the escort had to turn back. It was the moment the Focke-Wulfs had been waiting for. Setting on the bombers from head-on and slightly above, they let fly. Then, sweeping close beneath the formation, they climbed up and turned to repeat the attack.

The first Boeings caught fire. Four dived with black smoke-plumes down into the Eifel country, the next three into the Hunsrück. And now the sky was alive with Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts. As soon as one Gruppe exhausted its ammunition, it was replaced by another.

The battle went on for a full ninety minutes without let-up. The Americans lost fourteen aircraft, leaving 132 to bomb the target—the Messerschmitt works at Regensburg-Prüfening. Meanwhile German fighter control got ready to deal out similar punishment on the return flight. Usually this was the same course in reciprocal, but this time the Americans turned south, and demonstrated their enormous radius of action by crossing Italy and the Mediterranean to land in North Africa. Even so, another ten bombers were shot down by Luftflotte 1 in that area, so that this formation altogether lost twenty-four B-17s, with many more damaged.

But the zenith of the August 17th battle was still to come. In the early afternoon a still larger formation, numbering 229 aircraft, crossed the mouth of the Scheldt on its way to bomb the ball-bearing works at Schweinfurt. It was given a still warmer reception than the first. This time the German fighters did not wait till the escort had turned back. While one Gruppe engaged the Thunderbolts, a second went for the bombers.

Amongst the first assailants was again JG 11’s 5 Squadron, which had previously carried out experiments with bombs. Today its Messerschmitts had two 21-cm rockets slung under their wings. Creeping up behind, they sent these sizzling off from a range of 800 yards. The enemy formation was well staggered, and most of the rockets fell short. But two hit their targets, and these bombers literally burst asunder in the air. After this introduction the Americans did not enjoy a moment of peace during the whole remainder of their flight to Schweinfurt, or on their return. Over 300 German fighters were airborne.

From this mission thirty-six Fortresses failed to return, representing a total loss for the day of sixty, plus over a hundred damaged. Once again it had been demonstrated that relatively slow bombers in daylight were vulnerable to resolute fighter attack. It applied even to Flying Fortresses—so called because of their massive defensive armament. After this reverse they failed to appear again over the Reich for over five weeks. They avenged themselves by attacking Luftwaffe airfields in the western occupied countries under strong fighter escort.

Thus it was not until October that the U.S. 8th Air Force risked further ventures beyond the range of their own fighters, and then the lesson was rammed home even more firmly than it was in August. During one week, “from October 8th to 14th in which Bremen, Marienburg, Danzig, Münster, and once again Schweinfurt, were attacked, the Americans lost 148 machines. It meant the loss, within only a few days, of nearly 1,500 airmen. Even the Americans could not replace so many. About the second Schweinfurt raid the official American historian records that the German reaction was “unprecedented in its magnitude, in the cleverness with which it was planned, and in the severity with which it was executed.”

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Published in: on May 2, 2010 at 12:55 PM  Comments (4)  
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Lament of the Irish Emigrant

I’m sittin’ on the stile, Mary,
Where we sat side by side
On a bright May mornin’ long ago,
When first you were my bride;
The corn was springin’ fresh and green,
And the lark sang loud and high;
And the red was on your lip, Mary,
And the love-light in your eye.

The place is little changed, Mary;
The day is bright as then;
The lark’s loud song is in my ear,
And the corn is green again;
But I miss the soft clasp of your hand,
And your breath, warm on my cheek;
And I still keep list’nin’ for the words
You nevermore will speak.

‘Tis but a step down yonder lane,
And the little church stands near,–
The church where we were wed, Mary;
I see the spire from here.
But the graveyard lies between, Mary,
And my step might break your rest,–
For I’ve laid you, darling, down to sleep,
With your baby on your breast.

I’m very lonely now, Mary,
For the poor make no new friends;
But, O, they love the better still
The few our Father sends!
And you were all I had, Mary,–
My blessin’ and my pride;
There’s nothing left to care for now,
Since my poor Mary died.

Yours was the good, brave heart, Mary,
That still kept hoping on,
When the trust in God had left my soul,
And my arm’s young strength was gone;
There was comfort ever on your lip,
And the kind look on your brow,–
I bless you, Mary, for that same,
Though you cannot hear me now.

I thank you for the patient smile
When your heart was fit to break,–
When the hunger pain was gnawin’ there,
And you hid it for my sake;
I bless you for the pleasant word,
When your heart was sad and sore,–
O, I’m thankful you are gone, Mary,
Where grief can’t reach you more!

I’m biddin’ you a long farewell,
My Mary–kind and true!
But I’ll not forget you, darling,
In the land I’m goin’ to;
They say there’s bread and work for all,
And the sun shines always there,–
But I’ll not forget old Ireland,
Were it fifty times as fair!

And often in those grand old woods
I’ll sit, and shut my eyes,
And my heart will travel back again
To the place where Mary lies;
And I’ll think I see the little stile
Where we sat side by side,
And the springin’ corn, and the bright May morn,
When first you were my bride.

—Lady Dufferin

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Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 11:39 AM  Comments (2)  
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Musings of Balthazar

FROM The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

The maddest aberrations of the city now come boldly forward under the protection of the invisible lords of Misrule who preside at this season. No sooner has darkness fallen than the maskers begin to appear in the streets — first in ones and twos then in small companies, often with musical instruments or drums, laughing and singing their way to some great house or to some night-club where already the frosty air is bathed in the nigger warmth of jazz — the cloying grunting intercourse of saxophones and drums. Every- where they spring up in the pale moonlight, cowled like monks. The disguise gives them all a gloomy fanatical uniformity of outline which startles the white-robed Egyptians and fills them with alarm — the thrill of a fear which spices the wild laughter pouring out of the houses, carried by the light offshore winds towards the cafés on the sea-front; a gaiety which by its very shrillness seems to tremble always upon the edge of madness.

Slowly the bluish spring moon climbs the houses, sliding up the minarets into the clicking palm-trees, and with it the city seems to uncurl like some hibernating animal dug out of its winter earth, to stretch and begin to drink in the music of the three-day festival. The jazz pouring up from the cellars displaces the tranquil winter air in the parks and thoroughfares, mingling as it reaches the sealine with the drumming perhaps of a liner’s screws in the deepwater reaches of the estuary. Or you may hear and see for a brief moment the rip and slither of fireworks against a sky which for a moment curls up at the edges and blushes, like a sheet of burning carbon paper: wild laughter which mixes with the hoarse mooing of an old ship outside the harbour bar — like a cow locked outside a gate.

‘The lover fears the carnival’ says the proverb. And with the emergence of these black-robed creatures of the night everywhere, all is subtly altered. The whole temperature of life in the city alters, grows warm with the subtle intimations of spring. Carni vale — the flesh’s farewell to the year, unwinding its mummy wrappings of sex, identity and name, and stepping forward naked into the futurity of the dream.

All the great houses have thrown open their doors upon fabulous interiors warm with a firelight which bristles upon china and marble, brass and copper, and upon the blackleaded faces of the servants as they go about their duties. And down every street now, glittering in the moonlit gloaming, lounge the great limousines of the brokers and gamblers, like liners in dock, the patient and im- pressive symbols of a wealth which is powerless to bring true leisure or peace of mind for it demands everything of the human soul. They lie webbed in a winter light, expressing only the silence and power of all machinery which waits for the fall of man, looking on at the maskers as they cross and recross the lighted windows of the great houses, clutching each other like black bears, dancing to the throb of nigger music, the white man’s solace. Snatches of music and laughter must rise to Clea’s window where she sits with a board on her knees, patiently drawing while her little cat sleeps in its basket at her feet. Or perhaps in some sudden lull the chords of a guitar may be plucked to stay and wallow in the darkness of the open street until they are joined by a voice raised in remote song, as if from the bottom of a well. Or screams, cries for help.

But what stamps the carnival with its spirit of pure mischief is the velvet domino — conferring upon its wearers the disguise which each man in his secret heart desires above all. To become anonymous in an anonymous crowd, revealing neither sex nor relationship nor even facial expression — for the mask of this de- mented friar’s habit leaves only two eyes, glowing like the eyes of a Moslem woman or a bear. Nothing else to distinguish one by; the thick folds of the blackness conceal even the contours of the body. Everyone becomes hipless, breastless, faceless. And concealed beneath the carnival habit (like a criminal desire in the heart, a temptation impossible to resist, an impulse which seems pre- ordained) lie the germs of something: of a freedom which man has seldom dared to imagine for himself. One feels free in this disguise to do whatever one likes without prohibition. All the best murdersin the city, all the most tragic cases of mistaken identity, are the fruit of the yearly carnival; while most love affairs begin or end during these three days and nights during which we are delivered from the thrall of personality, from the bondage of ourselves. Once inside that velvet cape and hood, and wife loses husband, husband wife, lover the beloved. The air becomes crisp with the saltpetre of feuds and follies, the fury of battles, of agonizing night-long searches, of despairs. You cannot tell whether you are dancing with a man or a woman. The dark tides of Eros, which demand full secrecy if they are to overflow the human soul, burst out during carnival like something long dammed up and raise the forms of strange primeval creatures — the perversions which are, I suppose, the psyche’s ailment — in forms which you would think belonged to the Brocken or to Eblis. Now hidden satyr and maenad can rediscover each other and unite. Yes, who can help but love carnival when in it all debts are paid, all crimes expiated or committed, all illicit desires sated — without guilt or premeditation, without the penalties which conscience or society exact?

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Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 11:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Now

They waited for the music on the radio
to stop and it did, though somehow a few
seconds passed before they noticed,
much the way a day ends with a silvering
gone gray, darkness a hand on the shoulder,
a hug: it sits with you filling the room
with its silence. The message that followed
was meant to soothe as it shocked, like
the end of a fairy tale whispered
to a child at the edge of sleep: Now.
And even for them, enlisted to a duty
they were old enough to love, even they
felt the feather blows of a dream, that hush
of breath that arrives like a breeze
through a window, a dry kiss, the ghost
already closing the door behind him.
She retrieved the small pistol from its
velvet sack in the bread box. He
fit barrel to stock and oiled
his grandfather’s rifle. There was time,
though quickly, to lick each other’s
closed eyes, a ritual of sorts, his sweat
on her tongue, the bitter taste of mascara
across his gums, a cocaine freeze.
Offshore, beyond the breakwater,
the pirate station ended its broadcast
and released a single horn blast, as if
entering a slender bank of fog: a decorative
blast for a quickly passing vapor.
And what followed was the rumble
of a thousand shoes on concrete.
He paused to let the cat in as she filled its dish
an extra inch, enough for days or forever:
who knew? Simply put, the long wait was over.
And as they began to run with half the town
toward the harbor and the congregation site,
he saw the bright dome of the capitol
ignite with sunset, its copper tiles aflame.
And he remembered four children long ago
on the municipal beach, his brother’s foot bandaged
in strands of jelly fish, one sister screaming
as the other continued digging, her plastic pail
filled with wet sand to drip into spires. The horizon
had seemed a botched watercolor of sun
over sea, a stain of orange that made the sky
a tissue torn with fire. He had run
for his mother with a joyful panic, knowing
his mission was of mercy, his brother’s pain as vast
and distant as the execution of innocents
witnessed from afar, a television flickering
in a peaceful land. As now he ran with his wife,
the rifle easy in his arms, their pockets
jingling with keys and coins, skeletons,
quarters and dimes they would melt into bullets.

—James Harms

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James Harms was born in 1960 in Pasadena, California, where he lived for most of the first twenty-five years of his life. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Redlands then received an M.F.A. from Indiana University. He has taught at Denison University, East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and West Virginia University, where he is currently Professor of English and director of the creative writing program.

His first book of poems, Modern Ocean, was published in 1992 by Carnegie Mellon University Press. He was awarded the PEN/Revson Fellowship for his second book, The Joy Addict, also published by Carnegie Mellon University Press (1998). A letterpress, limited edition book of poems, East of Avalon, was issued by Caddis Case Press in 2000, and a third full-length collection, Quarters, appeared in 2001 (Carnegie Mellon UP).

Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 10:14 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Fields of Gold

You’ll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in the fields of gold

So she took her love
For to gaze awhile
Upon the fields of barley
In his arms she fell as her hair came down
Among the fields of gold

Will you stay with me, will you be my love
Among the fields of barley
We’ll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we lie in the fields of gold

See the west wind move like a lover so
Upon the fields of barley
Feel her body rise when you kiss her mouth
Among the fields of gold
I never made promises lightly
And there have been some that I’ve broken
But I swear in the days still left
We’ll walk in the fields of gold
We’ll walk in the fields of gold

Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold
You’ll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You can tell the sun in his jealous sky
When we walked in the fields of gold
When we walked in the fields of gold
When we walked in the fields of gold

—Sting

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Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 2:53 PM  Comments (3)  
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Coney Island by Paul Cadmus

FROM A Companion To 20th-Century America

Edited by Stephen Whitfield

For working people in general, commercial leisure and amusements offered a critical terrain in which to claim independence from supervision and control from either political elites or their own bosses, who often sought to control not only conditions of their work but also the rest of their lives. Amusement parks and resorts such as Coney Island or Euclid Beach offered crowds of patrons a whole series of pleasurable diversions that brought together men and women in a physical proximity that would have been embarrassing or forbidden in conventional society. Dance halls and beer gardens allowed crowds of young patrons to dance physically close and to engage in courtship, flirting, and sexual experimenting away from the watchful eyes of chaperones.

—Charles McGovern

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Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 2:36 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.

—C.S. Lewis

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Published in: on April 27, 2010 at 8:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Inner Darkness

FROM Down River by John Hart

We rode back to the farm, and I listened to the hard slap of wipers on the old truck. He killed the engine and we sat in the drive. Rain beat itself to mist on the roof. “Are you sure about this, son?”

I didn’t answer the question; I was thinking of Danny. Not only had I refused his request, but I’d doubted him, too. It was the ring found with Grace. It made everything so clear. He’d changed, gone dark for the money. His father wanted mine to sell and Danny had played along. Damn! I was so ready to believe it. I forgot the times that he’d stood up for me, forgot the man I knew him to be. In all of the ways that mattered, that was the greatest injustice I had done to him. But he was dead. I had to think of the living.

“This is going to kill Grace,” I said.

“She’s strong.”

“Nobody’s that strong. You should call the hospital. It’ll hit the papers. Maybe they can keep it from her, at least for a day or two. She should hear about this from us.”

He seemed uncertain. “Maybe until she’s better.” He nodded. “A day or two.”

“I’ve got to go,” I said, but my father stopped me with a hand on my arm. My door was open and water cascaded into the cab of the truck. He didn’t care.

“Dolf is my best friend, Adam. He’s been that for longer than you’ve been alive; since before I met your mother, since we were kids. Don’t think that this is easy for me.”

“Then you should feel like I do. We need to get him out.”

“Friendship is also about trust.”

I waited for a long second. “So is family,” I finally said.

“Adam . . .”

I climbed out, leaned in as water thrummed on my back. “Do you think I killed Gray Wilson? Right here, right now . . . do you think I did it?”

He leaned forward and the dome light struck his face. “No, son. I don’t think you did it.”

Something snapped in my chest, a strap loosened. “Saying that doesn’t mean that I forgive you. We have a long way to go, you and me.”

“Yes, we do.”

I didn’t plan to say what came next; it just welled out of me. “I want to come home,” I said. “That’s the real reason I’m back.” His eyes widened, but I wasn’t ready to talk further. I slammed the door, splashed through puddles, and slipped into my car. My father climbed onto his porch and turned to face me. His clothes hung wetly from his frame. Water ran down his face. He raised a hand above shadow-filled eyes, and kept it up until I pulled away.

I went to Dolf’s house; it was empty and dark. I stripped off wet clothes and flung myself down onto his couch. Thoughts churned through my mind; speculation, theories, despair. Fifteen miles away Dolf would be lying on a hard, narrow bunk. Probably awake. Probably afraid. The cancer would be chewing through him, looking for that last vital bit. How long until it took him? Six months? Two months? One? I had no idea. But when my mother died, and my father, for years, had been lost to me in mourning, it was Dolf Shepherd who made the difference. I could still feel the strength of that heavy hand on my shoulder. Long years. Hard years. And it was Dolf Shepherd who got me through.

If he was going to die, it should be with sunlight on his face.

I thought of the postcard in my glove compartment. If I was right, and Dolf had not killed Danny, then the card could possibly set him free. But who might it implicate? Someone with a reason to want Danny dead. Someone strong enough to conceal his body in the crack at the top of the knob. Maybe it was time to give it to Robin. But Dad was right about one thing: Dolf must have his reasons, and we had no idea what they might be. I closed my eyes and tried to not think of what Parks had said. Maybe he wanted the body found. And then Dolf’s voice, again: Sinners usually pay for their sins. Dark thoughts came with the sound of thunder. If Dolf killed Danny, he would have needed a damn good reason. But could he have? Was it even possible? I’d been gone for a long time. What things had changed in five years? What people?

I chewed on that thought until I fell asleep, and for once, I did not dream of my mother or of blood. Instead, I dreamt of teeth, of the cancer that was eating a good man down.

I woke before six, feeling as if I had not slept at all. Coffee was in the cupboard, so I set it to brew and walked outside to watery, gray light. It was thirty minutes before dawn, silent, still. Leaves drooped under dark beads and the grass was beaten flat. Puddles shone on the drive, as black and smooth as poured oil.

It was a perfect, quiet morning; and then I heard it, the multithroated wail of dogs on the hunt. The ululation of the pack. It was a primal sound that made my skin prickle. It rose above the hills and then faded. Rose and fell, like crazy men speaking in tongues. Then shots crashed out in quick succession, and I knew that my father, too, was restless.

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Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 2:37 PM  Leave a Comment  
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What The Cleaning Lady Knows

Cleanliness is not and never has been next to godliness.

White carpets are hell.

You can get by without Comet, Spic and Span or lemon oil,
but Windex is mandatory.

Ammonia can cause pneumonia.

People who pay to have clean houses cleaned are lonely.

Children whose parents work full-time will fall in love with
you.

Rich people splatter diarrhea
on the inside rim of their toilet seats, just like the rest of
us.

Cleaning rags should always be washed separately with bleach.

Cash is better than checks.

—Ginger Andrews

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Ginger Andrews

Ginger Andrews was born in North Bend, Oregon in 1956. Her poems have recently appeared in The Hudson Review, Poetry, River Sedge,Fireweed, and The American Voice. In 1997, she received the Mary Schierman Award at the Coos Bay Writers Conference. She is the winner of the 1999 Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize from Story Line Press, which will publish her book An Honest Answer in the fall. She cleans houses for a living, and is a janitor and Sunday school teacher at North Bend Church of Christ.

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Image: Lucian Freud: Girl in a Dark Dress
Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 1:54 PM  Comments (2)  
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When My Car Broke Down

I was somewhere in Utah or Wyoming,
somewhere in the high inhuman deserts,
in the thin blue flame of wavering air,
bluffs of red earth scorched and

stratified on the horizon. I had stopped
to admire the desolation, to smoke
a cigarette and consider that ten thousand
years ago this was all under water,

that strange fish would have swum
through the space my eyes now occupied;
before that ice, and before that
something else again, unimaginably alien.

The Buddhists say first thought best thought,
but my first thought when I saw the steam
billowing up from under my car was:
if I just keep driving, maybe it will go away.

After all, I was moving three thousand miles
not to “escape” my problems but to put
a nice distance between them and me.
A problem has to be fierce to travel that far.

My second thought was to stare at the engine
for a while. I leaned over and looked
down into it as into the bowels of a ship
or the cranium of some fantastic beast.

And recalled how my father tried to teach me
about cars. Mostly he had me hold
the light for hours and mostly I studied
the back of his head, turning over the words

he said and knowing even then I’d never
understand. The blood would drain
from my arm and I’d prop it up
with my one free hand to keep from

caving in or betraying my halfheartedness.
Even then I was hopelessly afflicted
with the disease of the Wandering Mind.
Even then I was dreaming myself

across magical landscapes, just like this,
and learning all he had to teach me
about standing rooted to one spot,
wishing I were somewhere else.

—John Brehm

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John Brehm

John Brehm was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, and educated at the University of Nebraska and Cornell University. He is the author of Sea of Faith, which won the 2004 Brittingham Prize and was published by The University of Wisconsin Press. In the Georgia Review, Judith Kitchen praised Sea of Faith for its “unified consistency of tone and sophistication of approach,” remarking that the “voice is urbane, humorous, and amused—distanced just enough to poke fun at the world and itself alike, to be able to see the ironies in every predicament.” Kitchen finds that Brehm’s poems give “voice to the complexities of being, handing us back to ourselves through the surety of his craft.”

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Published in: on March 31, 2010 at 4:42 PM  Comments (2)  
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Ganges, the Eternal

FROM A Passage To India by E M Forster

Their attention was diverted. Below them a radiance had suddenly appeared. It belonged neither to water nor moonlight, but stood like a luminous sheaf upon the fields of darkness. He told them that it was where the new sand-bank was forming, and that the dark ravelled bit at the top was the sand, and that the dead bodies floated down that way from Benares, or would if the crocodiles let them. “It’s not much of a dead body that gets down to Chandrapore.”

“Crocodiles down in it too, how terrible!” his mother murmured. The young people glanced at each other and smiled; it amused them when the old lady got these gentle creeps, and harmony was restored between them consequently. She continued: “What a terrible river! what a wonderful river! “and sighed. The radiance was already altering, whether through shifting of the moon or of the sand; soon the bright sheaf would be gone, and a circlet, itself to alter, be burnished upon the streaming void. The women discussed whether they would wait for the change or not, while the silence broke into patches of unquietness and the mare shivered. On her account they did not wait, but drove on to the City Magistrate’s bungalow, where Miss Quested went to bed, and Mrs. Moore had a short interview with her son.

He wanted to enquire about the Mohammedan doctor in the mosque. It was his duty to report suspicious characters and conceivably it was some disreputable hakirn who had prowled up from the bazaar. When she told him that it was someone connected with the Minto Hospital, he was relieved, and said that the fellow’s name must be Aziz, and that he was quite all right, nothing against him at all.

“Aziz! what a charming name!”

“So you and he had a talk. Did you gather he was well disposed?”

Ignorant of the force of this question, she replied, “Yes, quite, after the first moment.”

“I meant, generally. Did he seem to tolerate us—the brutal conqueror, the sundried bureaucrat, that sort of thing?”

“Oh, yes, I think so, except the Callendars—he doesn’t care for the Callendars at all.”

“Oh. So he told you that, did he? The Major will be interested. I wonder what was the aim of the remark.”

“Ronny, Ronny! you’re never going to pass it on to Major Callendar?”

“Yes, rather. I must, in fact!”

“But, my dear boy—”

“If the Major heard I was disliked by any native subordinate of mine, I should expect him to pass it on to me.”

“But, my dear boy—a private conversation!”

“Nothing’s private in India. Aziz knew that when he spoke out, so don’t you worry. He had some motive in what he said. My personal belief is that the remark wasn’t true.”

“How not true?”

“He abused the Major in order to impress you.”

“I don’t know what you mean, dear.”

“It’s the educated native’s latest dodge. They used to cringe, but the younger generation believe in a show of manly independence. They think it will pay better with the itinerant M.P. But whether the native swaggers or cringes, there’s always something behind every remark he makes, always something, and if nothing else he’s trying to increase his izzat—in plain knglo-Saxon, to score. Of course there are exceptions.”

“You never used to judge people like this at home.”

“India isn’t home,” he retorted, rather rudely, but in order to silence her he had been using phrases and arguments that he had picked up from older officials, and he did not feel quite sure of himself. When he said “of course there are exceptions” he was quoting Mr. Turton, while “ increasing the izzat” was Major Callendar’s own. The phrases worked and were in current use at the club, but she was rather clever at detecting the first from the second hand, and might press him for definite examples.

She only said, “I can’t deny that what you say sounds very sensible, but you really must not hand on to Major Callendar anything I have told you about Doctor Aziz.”

He felt disloyal to his caste, but he promised, adding, “In return please don’t talk about Aziz to Adela.”

“Not talk about him? Why?”

“There you go again, mother—I really can’t explain every thing. I don’t want Adela to be worried, that’s the fact; she’ll begin wondering whether we treat the natives properly, and all that sort of nonsense.”

“But she came out to be worried—that’s exactly why she’s here. She discussed it all on the boat. We had a long talk when we went on shore at Aden. She knows you in play, as she put it, but not in work, and she felt she must come and look round, before she decided—and before you decided. She is very, very fair-minded.”

“I know,” he said dejectedly.

The note of anxiety in his voice made her feel that he was still a little boy, who must have what he liked, so she promised to do as he wished, and they kissed good night. He had not forbidden her to think about Aziz, however, and she did this when she retired to her room. In the light of her son’s comment she reconsidered the scene at the mosque, to see whose impression was correct. Yes, it could be worked into quite an unpleasant scene. The doctor had begun by bullying her, had said Mrs. Callendar was nice, and then—finding the ground safe—had changed; he had alternately whined over his grievances and patronized her, had run a dozen ways in a single sentence, had been unreliable, inquisitive, vain. Yes, it was all true, but how false as a summary of the man; the essential life of him had been slain.

Going to hang up her cloak, she found that the tip of the peg was occupied by a small wasp. She had known this wasp or his relatives by day; they were not as English wasps, but had long yellow legs which hung down behind when they flew. Perhaps he mistook the peg for a branch—no Indian animal has any sense of an interior. Bats, rats, birds, insects will as soon nest inside a house as out; it is to them a normal growth of the eternal jungle, which alternately produces houses trees, houses trees. There he clung, asleep, while jackals in the plain bayed their desires and mingled with the percussion of drums.

“Pretty dear,” said Mrs. Moore to the wasp. He did not wake, but her voice floated out, to swell the night’s uneasiness.

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Published in: on March 30, 2010 at 11:08 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Every morning a delight

FROM Islands In The Stream by Ernest Hemingway

He watched Serafín pour the drink from the shaker into the tall glass and saw the top of it curl over the edge and onto the bar. Serafín pushed the base of the glass into the slit in a cardboard protector and Thomas Hudson lifted it, heavy and cold above the thin stem he held in his ringers, and took a long sip and held it in his mouth, cold against his tongue and teeth, before he swallowed it.

“All right,” he said. “The happiest day I ever had was any day when I woke in the morning when I was a boy and I did not have to go to school or to work. In the morning I was always hungry when I woke and I could smell the dew in the grass and hear the wind in the high branches of the hemlock trees, if there was a wind, and if there was no wind I could hear the quietness of the forest and the calmness of the lake and I would listen for the first noises of morning. Sometimes the first noise would be a kingfisher flying over the water that was so calm it mirrored his reflection and he made a clattering cry as he flew. Sometimes it would be a squirrel chittering in one of the trees outside the house, his tail jerking each time he made a noise. Often it would be the plover calling on the hillside. But whenever I woke and heard the first morning noises and felt hungry and knew I would not have to go to school nor have to work, I was happier than I have ever been.”

“Even than with women?”

“I’ve been very happy with women. Desperately happy. Unbearably happy. So happy that I could not believe it; that it was like being drunk or crazy. But never as happy as with my children when we were all happy together or the way I was early in the morning.”

“But how could you be as happy by yourself as with someone?” “This is all silly. You asked me to tell you whatever came in my mind.” “No, I didn’t. I said to tell me a happy story about the happiest time you remember.

That wasn’t a story. You just woke up and were happy. Tell me a real story.” “What about?” “Put some love in it.” “What kind of love? Sacred or profane?”

“No. Just good love with fun.” “I know a good story about that.” “Tell it to me then. Do you want another drink?” “Not till I finish this one. All right. At this time I was in Hong Kong which is a very

wonderful city where I was very happy and had a crazy life. There is a beautiful bay and on the mainland side of the bay is the city of Kowloon. Hong Kong itself is on a hilly island that is beautifully wooded and there are winding roads up to the top of the hills and houses built high up in the hills and the city is at the base of the hills facing Kowloon. You go back and forth by fast, modern ferryboats. This Kowloon is a fine city and you would like it very much. It is clean and well laid-out and the forest comes to the edge of the city and there is very fine wood pigeon shooting just outside of the compound of the Women’s Prison. We used to shoot the pigeons, which were large and handsome with lovely purple shading feathers on their necks, and a strong swift way of flying, when they would come in to roost just at twilight in a huge laurel tree that grew just outside the white-washed wall of the prison compound. Sometimes I would take a high incomer, coming very fast with the wind behind him, directly overhead and the pigeon would fall inside the compound of the prison and you would hear the women shouting and squealing with delight as they fought over the bird and then squealing and shrieking as the Sikh guard drove them off and retrieved the bird which he then brought dutifully out to us through the sentry’s gate of the prison.

“The mainland around Kowloon was called the New Territories and it was hilly and forested and there were many wood pigeons, and in the evening you could hear them calling to each other. There were often women and children digging the earth from the side of the roads and putting it into baskets. When they saw you with a shotgun, they ran and hid in the woods. I found out that they dug the earth because it had wolfram, the ore of tungsten, in it. This was very saleable then.”

Es un poco pesada esta historia.”

“No, Honest Lil. It isn’t really a dull story. Wait and see. Wolfram itself is pesado. But it is a very strange business. Where it exists it is the easiest thing there is to mine. You simply dig up the dirt and haul it away. Or you pick up the stones and carry them off. There are whole villages in Extremadura in Spain that are built of rock that has very high grade wolfram ore and the stone fences of the peasant’s field are all made of this ore. Yet the peasants are very poor. At this time it was so valuable that we were using DC-2’s, transport planes such as fly from here to Miami, to fly it over from a field at Nam Yung in Free China to Kai Tak airport at Kowloon. From there it was shipped to the States. It was considered very scarce and of vital importance in our preparations for war since it was needed for hardening steel, yet anyone could go out and dig up as much of it in the hills of the New Territories as he or she could carry on a flat basket balanced on the head to the big shed where it was bought clandestinely. I found this out when I was hunting wood pigeons and I brought it to the attention of people purchasing wolfram in the interior. No one was very interested and I kept bringing it to the attention of people of higher rank until one day a very high officer who was not at all interested that wolfram was there free to be dug up in the New Territories said to me, ‘But after all, old boy, the Nam Yung set-up is functioning you know.’ But when we shot in the evenings outside the women’s prison and would see an old Douglas twin-motor plane come in over the hills and slide down toward the airfield, and you knew it was loaded with sacked wolfram and had just flown over the Jap lines, it was strange to know that many of the women in the women’s prison were there for having been caught digging wolfram illicitly.”

Sí, es raro,” Honest Lil said. “But when does the love come in?”

“Any time you want it,” Thomas Hudson said. “But you’ll like it better if you know the sort of place it happened in.

“There are many islands and bays around Hong Kong and the water is clear and beautiful. The New Territories was really a wooded and hilly peninsula that extended out from the mainland and the island Hong Kong was built on is in the great, blue, deep bay that runs from the South China Sea all the way up to Canton. In the winter the climate was much as it is today when there is a norther blowing, with rain and blustery weather and it was cool for sleeping.

“I would wake in the mornings and even if it were raining I would walk to the fish market. Their fish are almost the same as ours and the basic food fish is the red grouper. But they had very fat and shining pompano and huge prawns, the biggest I have ever seen. The fish market was wonderful in the early morning when the fish were brought in shining and fresh caught and there were quite a few fish I did not know, but not many and there were also wild ducks for sale that had been trapped. You could see pintails, teal, widgeon, both males and females in winter plumage, and there were wild ducks that I had never seen with plumage as delicate and complicated as our wood ducks. I would look at them and their unbelievable plumage and their beautiful eyes and see the shining, fat, new-caught fish and the beautiful vegetables all manured in the truck gardens by human excrement, they called it ‘night-soil’ there, and the vegetables were as beautiful as snakes. I went to the market every morning, and every morning it was a delight.

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Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 6:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Memories and Rain

Thinking About the Poet Larry Levis
One Afternoon in Late May

Rainy Saturday, Larry dead
almost three weeks now,
Rain starting to pool in the low spots
And creases along the drive.
Between showers, the saying goes,
Roses and rhododendron wax glint
Through dogwood and locust leaves,
Flesh-colored, flesh-destined, spring in false flower, good-bye.

The world was born when the devil yawned,
the legend goes,
And who’s to say it’s not true,
Color of flesh, some inner and hidden bloom of flesh.
Rain back again, then back off,
Sunlight suffused like a chest pain across the tree limbs.
God, the gathering night, assumes it.

We haven’t a clue as to what counts
In the secret landscape behind the landscape we look at here.
We just don’t know what matters,
May dull and death-distanced,
Sky half-lit and grackle-ganged —
It’s all the same dark, it’s all the same absence of dark.
Part of the rain has now fallen, the rest still to fall.

—Charles Wright

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Published in: on March 29, 2010 at 5:45 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Faucet

The sink is costing me precious
concentration. Poet      poet      poet
it mocks, mating call for a plumber.
My friends suggest I should write more
toward the impossible, around the unreal.
I tell them my theme’s America,
what’s the diff? Water’s expensive
and money’s supposed to trickle,
the national pastime’s a diamond
made of dirt. It’s difficult not
to write satire, an old spout spurted.
He’s right: bills pop up, sense flies out,
a pitcher’s catching the faucet’s fluent
language. I myself don’t spicket.

*  *  *

The plumber does, thank God,
know his pipes. Chit-chatting a little,
we try to jive our slippery jargons.
“Long as you’re here, could you snake
the commode?” I ask (with a blue-collar
coyness — I might’ve called it “the throne”).
By accent, I’d trace this plumber to Pittsburgh —
the way he says “toilet” (twirl-it), the way
he says “faucet” (force-it). He asks what I do
(my skin crawls) and I tell him, saying poetry’s
like his business: if the job’s done right,
you never need see the pipes — just know
they’re flowing. His look says I’m full
of shit. Twirl it, I think, don’t force it.

—Kevin McFadden

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Published in: on March 26, 2010 at 8:03 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Caligula, God

Derek Jacobi as Caligula

FROM I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Caligula fell ill and for a whole month his life was despaired of. The doctors called it brain-fever. The popular consternation at Rome was so great that a crowd of not less than ten thousand people stood day and night around the Palace, waiting for a favourable bulletin. They kept up a quiet muttering and whispering together; the noise, as it reached my window, was like that of a distant stream running over pebbles. There were a number of most remarkable manifestations ‘ of anxiety. Some men even pasted up placards on their house-doors, to say that if Death held his hand and spared the Emperor, they vowed to give him their own lives in compensation. By universal consent all traffic noises and street cries and music ceased within half a mile or more of the Palace. That had never happened before, even during Augustus’s illness, the one of which Musa was supposed to have cured him. The bulletins always read: “No change.”

One evening Drusilla knocked at my door and said, “Uncle Claudius! The Emperor wants to see you urgently. Come at once. Don’t stop for anything.”

“What does he want me for?”

“I don’t know. But for Heaven’s sake humour him. He’s got a sword there. He’ll kill you if you don’t say what he wants you to say. He had the point at my throat this morning. He told me that I didn’t love him. I had to swear and swear that I did love him. ‘Kill me, if you like, my darling,’ I said. O Uncle Claudius, why was I ever born? He’s mad. He always was. But he’s worse than mad now.

He’s possessed.“

I went along to Caligula’s bedroom, which was heavily curtained and thickly carpeted. One feeble oil-lamp was burning by the bedside. The air smelt stale. His querulous voice greeted me. “Late again? I told you to hurry,” He didn’t look ill, only unhealthy. Two powerful deaf-mutes with axes stood as guards, one on each side of his bed.

I said, saluting him, “Oh, how I hurried! If I hadn’t had a lame leg I’d have been here almost before I started. What joy to see you alive and to hear your voice again, Caesar! Can I dare to hope that you’re better?”

“I have never really been ill. Only resting. And undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s the most important religious event in history. No wonder the City keeps so quiet.”

I felt that he expected me to be sympathetic, nevertheless. “Has the metamorphosis been painful, Emperor? I trust not.”

“As painful as if I were my own mother. I had a very difficult delivery. Mercifully, I have forgotten all about it. Or nearly all. For I was a very precocious child and distinctly remember the midwives’ faces of admiration as they washed me after my emergence into this world, and the taste of the wine they put between my lips to refresh me after my struggles.”

“An astounding memory. Emperor. But may I humbly enquire precisely what is the character of this glorious change that has come over you?”

“Isn’t it immediately apparent?” he asked angrily.

Drusilla’s word “possessed” and the conversation I had had with my grandmother Livia as she lay dying gave me the clue. I fell on my face and adored him as a God.

After a minute or two I asked from the floor whether I was the first man privileged to worship him. He said that I was and I burst out into gratitude. He was thoughtfully prodding me with the point of his sword in the back of my neck. I thought I was done for.

He said: “I admit I am still in mortal disguise, so it is not remarkable that you did not notice my Divinity at once.”

“I don’t know how I could have been so blind. Your face shines in this dim light like a lamp.”

“Does it?” he asked with interest. “Get up and give me that mirror.” I handed him a polished steel mirror and he agreed that it shone very brightly. In this fit of good humour he began to tell me a good deal about himself.

“I always knew that it would happen,” he said. *T never felt anything but Divine. Think of it. At two years old I put down a mutiny of my father’s army and so saved Rome. That was prodigious, like the stories told about the God Mercury when a child, or about Hercules who strangled the snakes in his cradle.“

“And Mercury only stole a few oxen,” I said, “and twanged a note or two on the lyre. That was nothing by comparison.”

“And what’s more, by the age of eight I had killed, my father. Jove himself never did that. He merely banished the old fellow.”

I took this as raving on the same level, but I asked in a matter-of-fact voice, “Why did you do that?”‘

“He stood in my way. He tried to discipline me-me, a young God, imagine it. So I frightened him to death. I smuggled dead things into our house at Antioch and hid them under loose tiles; and I scrawled charms, on the walls; and I got a cock in my bedroom to give him his marching orders. And I robbed him of his Hecate. Look, here she is! I always keep her under my pillow*” He held up the green jasper charm. My heart went as cold as ice when I recognized it. I said in a horrified voice: “You were the one then? And it was you who climbed into the bolted room by that tiny window and drew your devices there too?”

He nodded proudly and went rattling on: “Not only did I kill my natural father but I killed my father by adoption too-Tiberius, you know. And whereas Jupiter only lay with one sister of his, Juno, I have lain with all three of mine. Martina told me it was the right thing to do if I wanted to be like Jove.”

“You knew Martina well then?”

“Indeed I did. When my parents were in Egypt I used to visit her every night. She was a very wise woman, I’ll tell you another thing, Drusilla’s Divine too. I’m going to announce it at the same time as I make the announcement about myself. How I love Drusilla! Almost as much as she loves me.”

“May I ask what are your sacred intentions? This metamorphosis will surely affect Rome profoundly.”

“Certainly. First, I’m going to put the whole world in awe of me. I won’t allow myself to be governed by a lot of fussy old men any longer. I’m going to show… but you remember your old grandmother, Livia? That was a joke. Somehow she had got the notion that it was she who was to be the everlasting God about whom everyone has been prophesying in the East for the last thousand years. I think it was Thrasyllus who tricked her into believing that she was meant. Thrasyllus never told lies but he loved misleading people. You see, Livia didn’t know the precise terms of the prophecy. The God is to be a man not a woman, and not born in Rome, though he is to reign at Rome (I was born at Antium), and born at a time of profound peace (as I was), but destined to be the cause of innumerable wars after his death. He is to die young and to be at first loved by his people and then hated, and finally to die miserably, forsaken of all. ”His servants shall drink his blood.“ Then after his death he is to rule over all the other Gods of the world, in lands not yet known to us. That can only be myself. Maitina told me that many prodigies had been seen lately in the near East which proved conclusively that the God had been born at last. The Jews were the most excited. They somehow felt themselves peculiarly concerned. I suppose that this was because I once visited their city Jerusalem with my father and gave my first divine manifestation there.” He paused.

“It would greatly interest me to know about that,” I said.

“Oh, it was nothing much. Just for a joke I went into a house where some of their priests and doctors were talking theology together and suddenly shouted out: ‘You’re a lot of ignorant old frauds. You know nothing at all about it.’ That caused a great sensation and one old white-bearded man said: ‘Oh? And who are you. Child? Are you the prophesied one?* *Yes,’ I answered boldly. He said, weeping for rapture: ‘Then teach us,” I answered: ’Certainly not! It’s beneath my dignity,‘ and ran out again. You should have seen their faces! No, Livia was a clever and capable woman in her way-a female Ulysses, as I called her once to her face-and one day perhaps I shall deify her as I promised, but there’s no hurry about that. She will never make an important deity. Perhaps we’ll make her the patron goddess of clerks and accountants, because she had a good head for figures. Yes, and we’ll add poisoners, as Mercury has thieves under his protection as well as merchants and travellers.“

“That’s only justice,” I said. “But what I am anxious to know at once is this: in what name am I to adore you? Is it incorrect, for instance, to call you Jove? Aren’t you someone greater than Jove?”

He said: “Oh” greater than Jove, certainly, but anonymous as yet. For the moment, I think though, I’ll call myself Jove-the Latin Jove to distinguish myself from that Greek fellow. I’ll have to settle with him one of these days. He’s had his own way too long.“

I asked: “How does it happen that your father wasn’t a God too? I never heard of a God without a divine father.”

“That’s simple. The God Augustus was my father.”

“But he never adopted you, did he? He only adopted your elder brothers and left you to carry on your father’s line.”

“I don’t mean that he was my father by adoption, I mean that I am his son by his incest with Julia. I must be. That’s the only possible solution. I’m certainly no son of Agrippina: her father was a nobody. It’s ridiculous.”

I was not such a fool as to point out that in this case Germanicus wasn’t his father and therefore his sisters were only his nieces. I humoured him as Drusilla advised and said: “This is the most glorious hour of my life. Allow me to retire and sacrifice to you at once, with my remaining strength. The divine air you exhale is too strong for my mortal nostrils. I am nearly fainting,” The room was dreadfully stuffy. Caligula hadn’t allowed the windows to be opened ever since he took to his bed.

He said: “Go in peace. I thought of killing you, but I won’t now. Tell the Scouts about my being a God and about my face shining, but don’t tell them any more. I impose holy silence on you for the rest.”

I grovelled on the floor again and retired, backwards. Ganymede stopped me in the corridor and asked for the news. I said: “He’s just become a God and a very important one, he says. His face shines.”

“That’s bad news for us mortals,” said Ganymede. “But I saw it coming. Thanks for the tip, I’ll pass it on to the other fellows. Does Drusilla know? No? Then I’ll tell her.”

“Tell her that she’s a Goddess too,” I said, “in case she hasn’t noticed it.”

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Published in: on March 23, 2010 at 10:52 PM  Leave a Comment  
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D TANK KICKOUT

Ken Kesey

FROM The Demon Box by Ken Kesey

I check in at the SM County facilities dressed in my usual leather jacket, striped pants and shoes, silver whistle hanging around my neck. They allow you to wear street business up at camp. The bulls here at County Slam hate the policy. Lt. Gerder looks up from his typewriter sees my outfit and his already stone-cold face freezes even harder.

“All right, Deboree. Give me everything.”

“Everything?” Usually they let the Honor Camp prisoners check through, trust them to give up their watches, pocketknives, etc.

“Everything. We don’t want you blowing your whistle at midnight.”

“Make me out a complete property slip, then.”

He gives me an unwavering stare through the mesh as he takes a triplicate form from a waiting stack and rolls it into the typewriter.

“One whistle,” I say, pulling the chain over my head. “With a silver crucifix soldered to the side.”

He doesn’t type.

“One blues harp, E flat.”

He continues to look at me over the keys.

“Come on, Gerder; you want everything, I want a property slip for everything — whistles, harps, and all.”

We both know what I’m really worried about are my two Honor Camp notebooks.

“You just slide everything into the trough,” he says. “In fact, I want you out of that Davy Crockett costume, Jackoff. Peel it.”

He comes out of the cage while I take off the fringed jacket Behema made me from the hide we skinned off the cow elk Houlihan ran over coming down off Seven Devils Pass that All Souls’ Eve with the brakes gone and the headlights blown.

“Stuff it in the trough. Now, hands on the wall feet on the line. Spread ’em.” He gives the inside of my ankle a kick. “Deputy Rhack, back me while I examine this prisoner.”

They frisk me. The whole shot, flashlight and all. Taking sunglasses, handkerchief, fingernail clippers, ballpoint pens and everything. My two notebooks are wrapped in the big farewell card Fastinaux drew for me on butcher paper. Gerder rips it off and stuffs it in the wastebasket. He tosses the notebooks on top of the other stuff.

“I get a property slip for this stuff, Gerder. That’s the law.”

“While you’re in my tanks,” Lt. Gerder lets me know, “you go by my law.”

No malice in his voice. No anger. Just information.

“Okay then” — I take my two notebooks out of the trough and hold them up — “witness these.” Showing them to Deputy Rhack and the rest of the men waiting in the receiving room. “Everybody? Two notebooks.”

Then hand them to Gerder. He carries them around into his cage and sets them next to his typewriter. He hammers at the keys, ignoring the roomful of rancor across the counter from him. Rhack isn’t so cool; a lot of these guys will be back up at camp with him for many months yet, where he’s a guard without a gun. First he tries to oil us all with a wink, then he turns to me, smiling his sincerest man-to-man smile.

“So, Devlin. . . you think you got a book outta these six months with us?”

“I think so.”

“How do you think it’ll come out; in weekly installments in the Chronicle?”

“I hope not.” Bonehead move, giving those three pages of notes to that Sunday supplement reporter — pulled my own covers. “It should make a book on its own.”

“You’ll have to change a lot, I’ll bet. . . like the names.”

“I’ll bet a carton I don’t. Sergeant Rhack? Lieutenant Gerder? Where can you come up with better names than those?”

Before Rhack can think up an answer Gerder jerks the papers out and slides them under the mesh. “Sign all three, Deputy.”

Rhack has to use one of the pens from my pile. When Gerder gets the signed forms back he scoops all the little stuff out of the trough into a pasteboard property box with a numbered lid. He puts my wadded jacket on top.

“Okay, Deboree.” He swivels to the panel of remote switches. “Zip up your pants and step to the gate.”

“What about my notebooks?”

“You’ll find stationery in Detain. Next.”

Rhack hands me my ballpoint as I pass, and Gerder’s right: there is paper in D Tank. Sixo is still here, too, after coming down for his kickout more than a week ago. In blues now instead of the flashy slacks and sportjacket, but still trying to keep up the cocky front, combing his greasy pomp, talking tough: “Good deal! The pussy wagon has arrived.”

One by one the other guys that rode down on Rhack’s shuttle show up. Gerder has had to give them each the same treatment, taking cigarettes, paperbacks, everything.

“Sorry about that,” I tell them.

“Steer clear of Deboree,” Sixo advises them. “He’s a heat magnet.”

Just then keys jangle. “Deboree! Duggs is here to see you.”

Door slides open. I follow the turnkey down the row of cells to a room with a desk. Probation Officer Duggs is sitting behind it. My two notebooks are on the desk beside my rapsheets. Duggs looks up from the records.

“I see you made it without getting any more Bad Time tacked on,” Duggs says.

“I was good.”

Duggs closes the folder. “Think anybody’ll be here for you at midnight?”

“One of my family, probably.”

“Down all the way from Oregon?”

“I hope so.”

“Some family.” He looks at me: caseworker look, conditioned sincere. Sympathetic. “Sorry about the report on your father.”

“Thanks.”

“That’s why Judge Rilling waived that Bad Time, you know?”

“I know.”

He lectures me awhile on the evils of blah blah blah. I let him run out his string. Finally he stands up, comes round the desk, sticks out his hand. “Okay, Short-timer. But don’t miss the ten-thirty hearing Monday morning if you want to get released to an Oregon PO.”

“I’ll be here.”

“I’ll walk you back.”

On the walk back to D Tank he asks what about this Jail Book; when will it be coming out? When it’s over, I tell him. When might that be? When it stops happening. Will this talk tonight be in it? Yes. . . tonight, Monday morning, last week — everything will be in it.

“Deboree!” Sixo calls through the bars. “Put this in your fucking book: a guy — me — a guy shuns his comrades, plays pinochle five months with the motherfucking brass up there — five and a half months! When he musters down, one of those bulls misses a pack of Winstons and calls down and asks, ‘What brand of cigarettes did Sixo check in with? Winstons? Slap a hold on him!’ I mean is that cold or what, man? Is that a ballbusting bitch? But, what the fuck; Sixo will survive,” he crows. “Angelo Sixo is Sir Vivor!”

Some dudes can snivel so it sounds like they’re crowing.

They lock me in and Duggs leaves. Sixo sits back down. He’s doing Double Time, on hold like this — Now Time along with Street-to-come Time. You can even be made to serve Triple Time, which adds on Street-gone-by Time and that is called Guilt. A man waiting for his kickout is on what’s called Short Time. Short Time is known for being Hard Time. Lots of Short-timers go nuts or fuck up or try a run. Short is often harder than Long.

The best is Straight Time. That’s what the notebooks are about.

More guys check in. Weekenders. D-Tankers. Some Blood hollers from the shadows, “Mercy, Deputy Dawg. . . we done already got motherfuckers wall to wall. . .”

Drunk tank full to overflowing
Motherfuckers wall to wall
Coming twice as fast as going
Time gets big; tank gets small.

Dominoes slap on the table
Bloods play bones in tank next door
Bust a bone, if you be able
Red Death stick it good some more.

Three days past my kickout time
Ask to phone; don’t get the juice —
Crime times crime just equals more crime
Cut the motherfuckers loose.

Will I make the Christmas kickout?
Will commissary come today?
Will they take my blood for Good Time
Or just take my guts away?

Some snitch found my homemade outfit!
They’ve staked a bull up at the still!
They’ve scoped the pot plants we were sprouting
At the bottom of the hill.

They punched my button, pulled my covers
Blew my cool, ruint my ruse
They’ve rehabilitated this boy
Cut this motherfucker loose.

The fish that nibbles on the wishing
Let him off his heavy rod
The gowned gavel-bangers fishing
Cut them loose from playing God.

Back off Johnson, back off peacefreaks
From vendettas, from Vietnam
Cut loose the squares, cut loose the hippies
Cut loose the dove, cut loose the bomb.

You, the finger on the trigger
You, the hand that weaves the noose
You hold the blade of brutal freedom —
Cut all the motherfuckers loose.

Eleven forty they take me out give me my clothes, whistle and harp put me in this room with a bench and one other Short-timer, gray-pated mahogany-hued old dude of sixty years or so.

“Oh, am I one Ready Freddy. Am I ever!”

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Published in: on March 17, 2010 at 10:58 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Social Security

No one is safe. The streets are unsafe.
Even in the safety zones, it’s not safe.
Even safe sex is not safe.
Even things you lock in a safe
are not safe. Never deposit anything
in a safe-deposit box, because it
won’t be safe there. Nobody is safe
at home during baseball games anymore.

At night I go around in the dark
locking everything, returning
a few minutes later
to make sure I locked
everything. It’s not safe here.
It’s not safe and they know it.
People get hurt using safety pins.

It was not always this way.
Long ago, everyone felt safe. Aristotle
never felt danger. Herodotus felt danger
only when Xerxes was around. Young women
were afraid of wingèd dragons, but felt
relaxed otherwise. Timotheus, however,
was terrified of storms until he played
one on the flute. After that, everyone
was more afraid of him than of the violent
west wind, which was fine with Timotheus.
Euclid, full of music himself, believed only
that there was safety in numbers.

—Terence Winch

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Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 3:33 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Homemade

FROM First Love, Last Rights by Ian McEwan

I CAN SEE NOW our cramped, overlit bathroom and Connie with a towel draped round her shoulders, sitting on the edge of the bath weeping, while I filled the sink with warm water and whistled – such was my elation – ‘Teddy Bear’ by Elvis Presley, I can remember, I have always been able to remember, fluff from the candlewick bedspread swirling on the surface of the water, but only lately have I fully realised that if this was the end of a particular episode, in so far as real-life episodes may be said to have an end, it was Raymond who occupied, so to speak, the beginning and middle, and if in human affairs there are no such things as episodes then I should really insist that this story is about Raymond and not about virginity, coitus, incest and self- abuse. So let me begin by telling you that it was ironic, for reasons which will become apparent only very much later – and you must be patient – it was ironic that Raymond of all people should want to make me aware of my virginity.

On Finsbury Park one day Raymond approached me, and steering me across to some laurel bushes bent and unbent his finger mysteriously before my face and watched me intently as he did so. I looked on blankly. Then I bent and unbent my finger too and saw that it was the right thing to do because Raymond beamed.

‘You get it?’ he said. ‘You get it!’ Driven by his exhilaration I said yes, hoping then that Raymond would leave me alone now to bend and unbend my finger, to come at some understanding of his bewildering digital allegory in solitude. Raymond grasped my lapels with unusual intensity.

‘What about it, then?’ he gasped. Playing for time, I crooked my forefinger again and slowly straightened it, cool and sure, in fact so cool and sure that Raymond held his breath and stiffened with its motion. I looked at my erect finger and said, ‘That depends,’ wondering if I was to discover today what it was we were talking of.

Raymond was fifteen then, a year older than I was, and though I counted myself his intellectual superior – which was why I had to pretend to understand the significance of his finger – it was Raymond who knew things, it was Raymond who conducted my education. It was Raymond who initiated me into the secrets of adult life which he understood himself intuitively but never totally. The world he showed me, all its fascinating detail, lore and sin, the world for which he was a kind of standing master of ceremonies, never really suited Raymond. He knew that world well enough, but it – so to speak – did not want to know him. So when Raymond produced cigarettes, it was I who learned to inhale the smoke deeply, to blow smoke- rings and to cup my hands round the match like a film star, while Raymond choked and fumbled; and later on when Raymond first got hold of some marihuana, of which I had never heard, it was I who finally got stoned into euphoria while Raymond admitted – something I would never have done myself – that he felt nothing at all. And again, while it was Raymond with his deep voice and wisp of beard who got us into horror films, he would sit through the show with his fingers in his ears and his eyes shut. And that was remarkable in view of the fact that in one month alone we saw twenty-two horror films. When Raymond stole a bottle of whisky from a supermarket in order to introduce me to alcohol, I giggled drunkenly for two hours at Raymond’s convulsive fits of vomiting. My first pair of long trousers were a pair belonging to Raymond which he had given to me as a present on my thirteenth birthday.

On Raymond they had, like all his clothes, stopped four inches short of his ankles, bulged at the thigh, bagged at the groin and now, as if a parable for our friendship, they fitted me like tailor-mades, in fact so well did they fit me, so comfortable did they feel, that I wore no other trousers for a year. And then there were the thrills of shoplifting.

The idea as explained to me by Raymond was quite simple. You walked into Foyle’s bookshop, crammed your pockets with books and took them to a dealer on the Mile End Road who was pleased to give you half their cost price. For the very first occasion I borrowed my father’s overcoat which trailed the pavement magnificently as I swept along. I met Raymond outside the shop. He was in shirtsleeves because he had left his coat on the Under- ground but he was certain he could manage without one anyway, so we went into the shop. While I stuffed into my many pockets a selection of slim volumes of prestigious verse, Raymond was concealing on his person the seven volumes of the Variorum Edition of the Works of Edmund Spenser. For anyone else the boldness of the act might have offered some chance of success, but Raymond’s bold- ness had a precarious quality, closer in fact to a complete detachment from the realities of the situation. The under- manager stood behind Raymond as he plucked the books from the shelf. The two of them were standing by the door as I brushed by with my own load, and I gave Raymond, who still clasped the tomes about him, a conspiratorial smile, and thanked the under-manager who automatically held the door open for me. Fortunately, so hopeless was Raymond’s attempt at shoplifting, so idiotic and trans- parent his excuses, that the manager finally let him go, liberally assuming him to be, I suppose, mentally deranged.

And finally, and perhaps most significantly, Raymond acquainted me with the dubious pleasures of mastur- bation. At the time I was twelve, the dawn of my sexual day. We were exploring a cellar on a bomb site, poking around to see what the dossers had left behind, when Raymond, having lowered his trousers as if to have a piss, began to rub his prick with a coruscating vigour, inviting me to do the same. I did and soon became suffused with a warm, indistinct pleasure which intensified to a floating, melting sensation as if my guts might at any time drift away to nothing. And all this time our hands pumped furiously. I was beginning to congratulate Raymond on his discovery of such a simple, inexpensive yet pleasurable way of passing the time, and at the same time wondering if I could not dedicate my whole life to this glorious sensation – and I suppose looking back now in many respects I have – I was about to express all manner of things when I was lifted by the scruff of the neck, my arms, my legs, my insides, haled, twisted, racked, and producing for all this two dollops of sperm which flipped over Raymond’s Sunday jacket – it was Sunday – and dribbled into his breast pocket.

‘Hey,’ he said, breaking with his action, ‘what did you do that for?’ Still recovering from this devastating experience I said nothing, I could not say anything.

‘I show you how to do this,’ harangued Raymond, dabbing delicately at the glistening jissom on his dark jacket, ‘and all you can do is spit.’

And so by the age of fourteen I had acquired, with Raymond’s guidance, a variety of pleasures which I rightly associated with the adult world. I smoked about ten cigarettes a day, I drank whisky when it was available, I had a connoisseur’s taste for violence and obscenity, I had smoked the heady resin of cannabis sativa and I was aware of my own sexual precocity, though oddly it never occurred to me to find any use for it, my imagination as yet unnourished by longings or private fantasies. And all these pastimes were financed by the dealer in the Mile End Road. For these acquired tastes Raymond was my Mephistopheles, he was a clumsy Virgil to my Dante, showing me the way to a Paradiso where he himself could not tread. He could not smoke because it made him cough, the whisky made him ill, the films frightened or bored him, the cannabis did not affect him, and while I made stalactites on the ceiling of the bomb-site cellar, he made nothing at all.

‘Perhaps,’ he said mournfully as we were leaving the site one afternoon, ‘perhaps I’m a little too old for that sort of thing.’

So when Raymond stood before me now intently crooking and straightening his finger I sensed that here was yet another fur-lined chamber of that vast, gloomy and delectable mansion, adulthood, and that if I only held back a little, concealing, for pride’s sake, my ignorance, then shortly Raymond would reveal and then shortly I would excel.

‘Well, that depends.’ We walked across Finsbury Park where once Raymond, in his earlier, delinquent days had fed glass splinters to the pigeons, where together, in innocent bliss worthy of the ‘Prelude’, we had roasted alive Sheila Harcourt’s budgerigar while she swooned on the grass nearby, where as young boys we had crept behind bushes to hurl rocks at the couples fucking in the arbour; across Finsbury Park then, and Raymond saying, ‘Who do you know?’ Who did I know? I was still blundering, and this could be a change of subject, for Raymond had an imprecise mind. So I said, ‘Who do you know?’ to which Raymond replied, ‘Lulu Smith,’ and made everything clear – or at least the subject matter, for my innocence was remarkable. Lulu Smith! Dinky Lulu! the very name curls a chilly hand round my balls. Lulu Lamour, of whom it was said she would do anything, and that she had done everything. There were Jewish jokes, elephant jokes and there were Lulu jokes, and these were mainly responsible for the extravagant legend. Lulu Slim – but how my mind reels – whose physical enormity was matched only by the enormity of her reputed sexual appetite and prowess, her grossness only by the grossness she inspired, the legend only by the reality. Zulu Lulu! who – so fame had it – had laid a trail across north London of frothing idiots, a desolation row of broken minds and pricks spanning Shepherds Bush to Holloway, Ongar to Islington. Lulu! Her wobbling girth and laughing piggy’s eyes, blooming thighs and dimpled finger-joints, this heaving, steaming leg-load of schoolgirl flesh who had, so reputation insisted, had it with a giraffe, a humming-bird, a man in an iron lung (who had subsequently died), a yak, Cassius Clay, a marmoset, a Mars Bar and the gear stick of her grandfather’s Morris Minor (and subsequently a traffic warden).

Finsbury Park was filled with the spirit of Lulu Smith and I felt for the first time ill-defined longings as well as mere curiosity. I knew approximately what was to be done, for had I not seen heaped couples in all corners of the park during the long summer evenings, and had I not thrown stones and water bombs? – something I now superstitiously regretted. And suddenly there in Finsbury Park, as we threaded our way through the pert piles of dog shit, I was made aware of and resented my virginity; I knew it to be the last room in the mansion, I knew it to be for certain the most luxurious, its furnishings more elaborate than any other room, its attractions more deadly, and the fact that I had never had it, made it, done it, was a total anathema, my malodorous albatross, and I looked to Raymond, who still held his forefinger stiff before him, to reveal what I must do. Raymond was bound to know…

After school Raymond and I went to a cafe near Finsbury Park Odeon. While others of our age picked their noses over their stamp collections or homework, Raymond and I spent many hours here, discussing mostly easy ways of making money, and drinking large mugs of tea. Sometimes we got talking to the workmen who came there. Millais should have been there to paint us as we listened transfixed to their unintelligible fantasies and exploits, of deals with lorry drivers, lead from church roofs, fuel missing from the City Engineer’s department, and then of cunts, bits, skirt, of strokings, beatings, fuckings, suckings, of arses and tits, behind, above, below, in front, with, without, of scratching and tearing, licking and shitting, of juiced cunts streaming, warm and infinite, of others cold and arid but worth a try, of pricks old and limp, or young and ebullient, of coming, too soon, too late or not at all, of how many times a day, of attendant diseases, of pus and swellings, cankers and regrets, of poisoned ovaries and destitute testicles; we listened to who and how the dustmen fucked, how the Co-op milkmen fitted it in, what the coalmen could hump, what the carpet-fitter could lay, what the builders could erect, what the meter man could inspect, what the bread man could deliver, the gas man sniff out, the plumber plumb, the electrician connect, the doctor inject, the lawyer solicit, the furniture man instal – and so on, in an unreal complex of timeworn puns and innuendo, formulas, slogans, folklore and bravado. I listened without understanding, remembering and filing away anecdotes which I would one day use myself, putting by histories of perversions and sexual manners – in fact a whole sexual morality, so that when finally I began to understand, from my own experience, what it was all about, I had on tap a complete education which, augmented by a quick reading of the more interesting parts of Havelock Ellis and Henry Miller, earned me the reputation of being the juvenile connoisseur of coitus to whom dozens of males – and fortunately females, too – came to seek advice. And all this, a reputation which followed me into art college and enlivened my career there, all this after only one fuck – the subject of this story.

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Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 8:06 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Art History, Chicago

Paris Street, A Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte

It’s not so much a *Sunday Afternoon
on the Island of La Grande Jatte* as the point
of order according to Seurat —
that bits of light and color, oil paints
aligned in dots become the moment caught,
verbs slowed to a standstill, the life examined.
We step back wide-eyed for a better look:
an assemblage of Parisian suburbanites
in Sunday dress, top hats and parasols,
are there among the trees beside the river.
There are girls and women, men and dogs
in random attitudes of ease and leisure.
A stretch of beach, boats in the blue water,
a woman with a monkey on a leash,
a stiff man beside her, a mother and daughter,
that little faceless girl who seems to look at us.
And everyone is slightly overdressed except
for a boatman stretched out in the shade.
He smokes his pipe and waits for passengers.
But I have never been to Paris.
I’ve never holidayed beside the Seine
nor strolled with a French girl in the gray morning
as in this *Paris Street, A Rainy Day* —
Gustave Caillebotte’s earlier masterpiece
three galleries down in this collection.
So I do not know these cobblestones, this street,
this corner this couple seems intent on turning.
But I’ve walked with a woman arm in arm
holding an umbrella in a distant city,
and felt the moment quicken, yearning for
rainfall or a breeze off the river or
the glistening flesh of her body in water
the way this woman’s is about to be
that Degas has painted in *The Morning Bath*.
She rises from her bed, removes her camisole
and steps into the tub a hundred years ago.

History’s a list of lovers and cities,
a mention of the weather, names and dates
of meetings in libraries and museums
of walks by the sea, or through a city,
late luncheons, long conversations, memories
of what happened or what didn’t happen.
But art is the brush of a body on your body,
the permanent impression that the flesh
retains of courtesies turned intimate;
the image and likeness, the record kept
of figures emergent in oil or water
by the river, in the rain or in the bath
when, luminous with love and its approval,
that face, which you hardly ever see,
turns its welcome towards you yet again.

—Thomas Lynch

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Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 7:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Annabel Lee

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love –
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her high-born kinsmen came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me –
Yes! that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud one night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we –
Of many far wiser than we –
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling -my darling -my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea –
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

—Edgar Allan Poe

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Read by John Lithgow

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Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 11:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Snow Queen Explains

Hey, I didn’t start out like this.
I enjoyed corned beef sandwiches,
good vodka. It started with sparkle—
one broken splinter in my foot, another in my finger.

Then I lived so far South the only snow
I’d seen was the shedding of magnolia,
a petal coat of white on the ground so thick
you had to kick through it.

I didn’t notice how sounds had dampened,
how the summers with you became intolerable, sticky.
I lay in ice water baths, peeled off blankets,
nightgowns. You always complained
my hands were too cold anyway.

I moved North, started keeping pets with fur.
I enjoyed the way my new stilettos
pierced the fine layer of ice outside my door.
My Southern manners melted in the blank
face of so much snow.

A glassy film grew over my skin, perfecting.
My hair grew lighter without the touch
of sun. I built a palace from the remnants
of our life together—white car doors,
blocks of ice, mirrors, polished surfaces.

I dressed in white satin, white fox.
I carved swans in ice for company. After thirty,
I started wanting one boy after another—
Perhaps their girlfriends’ tiny fists bang
on my palace door. I cannot hear them.

I don’t think of you at all,
here, while my skin grows smoother
each year, while my hands and feet
become idols for the dead.

—Jeannine Hall Gailey

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Jeannine Hall Gailey was born at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut, and grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has a B.S. in Biology and an M.A. in English from the University of Cincinnati, as well as an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Pacific University. Her first book of poetry, Becoming the Villainess, was published by Steel Toe Books in 2006. Poems from the book were featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and onVerse Daily; two were included in 2007’s The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. She recently taught with the Young Artist Project at Centrum.  In 2007 she received a Washington State Artist Trust GAP Grant and a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review, writes book reviews, and teaches at National University’s MFA Program.

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Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 10:58 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Happy Game

FROM The Journey to the East by Hermann Hesse

AS I APPROACHED the  house of which I now knew every crack and fissure in its grey-green plaster, I heard the tune whistled of a little song or dance, a popular tune, coming from the upper window. I did not know anything yet, but I listened. The tune stirred my memory and some dormant recollections came to the fore. The music was banal but the whistling was wonderfully sweet, with soft and pleasing notes, unusually pure, as happy and as natural as the songs of birds. I stood and listened, enchanted, and at the same time strangely moved without, however, having any kind of accompanying thoughts. Or if I did, it was perhaps that it must be a very happy and amiable man who could whistle like that. For several minutes I stood there rooted to the spot and listened. An old man with a sick, sunken face went by. He saw me standing and listened too, just for a moment, then smiled at me with understanding as he went on. His beautiful, far-seeing old man’s look seemed to say: “You stay there, one does not hear whistling like that every day.” The old man’s glance cheered me. I was sorry when he went past. At the same moment, however, I immediately realized that this whistling was the fulfillment of all my wishes, that the whistler must be Leo.

It was growing dark but there was still no light in any window. The tune, with its simple variations, was finished. There was silence. “He will now make a light up there,” I thought, but everything remained in darkness. Then I heard a door being opened upstairs and soon I also heard footsteps on the stairs. The door of the house was opened and someone came out, and his walk was like his whistling, light and jolly, but steady, healthy and youthful. It was a very slim, hatless man, not very tall, who walked there, and now my feelings was changed to certainty. It was Leo; not only the Leo from the directory, it was Leo himself, our dear traveling companion and servant Leo, whose disappearance ten or more years ago had brought us so much sadness and confusion. I nearly addressed him in the moment of my initial joy and surprise. Then I only just remembered that I had also often heard him whistling during the Journey to the East. They were the same strains of previous times, and yet how strangely different they sounded to me! A feeling of sadness came over me like a stab in the heart: oh, how different everything had become since then, the sky, the air, the seasons, dreams, sleep, day and night! How greatly and terribly everything had changed for me when, through memory of the past alone, a whistle and the rhythm of a known step could affect me so deeply and give me so much pleasure and pain!

The man went close by me, his bare head, supple and serene on his bare neck, appeared above his blue open-neck shirt. The figure moved easily and gaily along the darkening lane, hardly audible in thin sandals or gym shoes. I followed him without any particular intention. How could I help but follow him! He walked down the lane, and although his step was light, effortless and youthful, it was also in keeping with the evening; it was of the same quality as the twilight, it was friendly and at one with the hour, with the subdued sounds from the center of the town, with the half-light of the first lamps which were just beginning to appear.

He turned into the small park at St. Paul’s Gate, disappeared amongst the tall round bushes, and I hurried so that I should not lose him. There he was again; he was sauntering slowly alongside the lilac bushes and the acacia. The path divided into two through the little wood. There were a couple of benches at the edge of the sward. Here under the trees it was already dark. Leo went past the first bench; a pair of lovers were sitting on it. The next bench was empty. He sat down, leaned against the bench, pressed his head back and for a time looked up at the foliage and the clouds. Then he took a small round white metal box out of his coat pocket, put it by his side on the bench, unscrewed the lid and slowly began to take somediing out of the box which he put into his mouth and ate with enjoyment. Meantime I walked to and from the entrance to the wood; I then went up to his bench and sat down at the other end. He looked up, gazed at me with clear grey eyes and went on eating. He was eating dried fruits, a few prunes and half apricots. He took them one after the other between two fingers, pressed and fingered each one a little, put them in his mouth and chewed them for a long time with enjoyment. It took a long time before he came to the last one and ate it. He then closed the box again and put it away, leaned back and stretched out his legs. I now saw that his cloth shoes had soles of plaited rope.

“It will rain tonight,” he said suddenly, I knew not whether to me or to himself.

“Yes, it looks like it,” I said, somewhat embarrassed, for as he had not yet recognized my figure and walk, it was possible and I was almost certain that he would now recognize me by my voice.

But no, he did not recognize me at all, not even by my voice, and although that had been my first wish, it nevertheless gave me a feeling of great disappointment. He did not recognize me. While he had remained the same after ten years and had apparently not aged at all, it was quite different with me, sadly different.

“You whistle very well,” I said. “I heard you earlier on in Seilergraben. It gave me very much pleasure. I used to be a musician.”

“Oh, were you!” he said in a friendly manner. “It’s a great profession. Have you given it up?”

“Yes, for the time being. I have even sold my violin.”

“Have you? What a pity! Are you in difficulties — that is to say, are you hungry? There is still some food at my house. I also have a little money in my purse.”

“Oh, no,” I said quickly, “I did not mean that. I am in quite good circumstances. I have more than I need. But thank you very much; it was very kind of you to make the offer. One does not often meet such kind people.”

“Don’t you think so? Well, maybe! People are often very strange. You are a strange person, too.”

“Am I? Why?”

“Well, because you have enough money and yet you sell your violin. Don’t you like music any more?”

“Oh, yes, but sometimes a man no longer finds pleasure in something he previously loved. Sometimes a man sells his violin or throws it against the wall, or a painter burns all his pictures. Have you never heard of such a thing?”

“Oh, yes. That comes from despair. It does happen. I even knew two people who committed suicide. Such people are stupid and can be dangerous. One just cannot help some people. But what do you do now that you no longer have your violin?”

“Oh, this, that and the other. I do not really do much. I am no longer young and I am also often ill. But why do you keep on talking about this violin? It is not really so important.”

“The violin? It made me think of King David.”

“King David? What has he to do with it?”

“He was also a musician. When he was quite young he used to play for King Saul and sometimes dispelled his bad moods with music. Later he became a king himself, a great king full of cares, having all sorts of moods and vexations. He wore a crown and conducted wars and all that kind of thing, and he also did many really wicked things and became very famous. But when I think of his life, the most beautiful part of it all is about the young David with his harp playing music to poor Saul, and it seems a pity to me that he later became a king. He was a much happier and better person when he was a musician.”

“Of course he was!” I cried rather passionately. “Of course, he was younger then and more handsome and happier. But one does not always remain young; your David would in time have grown older and uglier and would have been full of cares even if he had remained a musician. So he became the great David, performed his deeds and composed his psalms. Life is not just a game!”

Leo then rose and bowed. “It is growing dark,” he said, “and it will rain soon. I do not know a great deal more about the deeds that David performed, and whether they were really great. To be quite frank, I do not know very much more about his psalms either, but I should not like to say anything against them. But no account of David can prove to me that life is not just a game. That is just what life is when it is beautiful and happy — a game! Naturally, one can also do all kinds of other things with it, make a duty of it, or a battleground, or a prison, but that does not make it any prettier. Good-bye, pleased to have met you!”

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Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 9:58 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Thunder on the Mountain

FROM Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

At midday Paul Berlin spotted Cacciato. He was half a mile up, bent low and moving patiently against the steep grade. A smudged, lonely-looking figure. It was Cacciato, no question. Legs much too short for the broad back, a shiny pink spot at the crown of the skull. Paul Berlin spotted him, but it was Stink Harris who spoke up.

Lieutenant Corson took out the binoculars.

“Him, sir?”

The lieutenant watched Cacciato climb toward the clouds.

“That him?”

“Oh, yes. Yes.”

Stink laughed. “Dumb-dumb. Right, sir? Dumb as a dink.”

The lieutenant shrugged. He watched until Cacciato was lost in the higher clouds, then he mumbled something and put the glasses away and motioned for them to move out.

“It’s folly,” Oscar said. “That’s all it is. Foolish folly.”

Staying in the old order, they climbed slowly: Stink at point, then the lieutenant, then Eddie and Oscar, then Harold Murphy, then Doc Peret. At the rear of the column, Spec Four Paul Berlin walked with his head down. He had nothing against Cacciato. The whole thing was silly, of course, immature and dumb, but even so, he had nothing against the kid. It was just too bad. A waste among infinitely wider wastes.

Climbing, he tried to picture Cacciato’s face. He tried hard, but the image came out fuzzy. “It’s the Mongol influence,” Doc Peret had once said. “I mean, hey, just take a close look at him. See how the eyes slant? Pigeon toes, domed head? My theory is that the guy missed Mongolian idiocy by the breadth of a genetic hair. Could’ve gone either way.”

And maybe Doc was right. There was something curiously unfinished about Cacciato. Open-faced and naive and plump, Cacciato lacked the fine detail, the refinements and final touches, that maturity ordinarily marks on a boy of seventeen years. The result was blurred and uncolored and bland. You could look at him then look away and not remember what you’d seen. All this, Stink said, added up to a case of gross stupidity. The way he whistled on guard, the funny little trick he had of saving mouthwash by spitting it back into the bottle, fishing for walleyes up in Lake Country. It was all part of a strange, boyish simplicity that the men tolerated the way they might tolerate a frisky pup.

Humping to Paris, it was one of those crazy things Cacciato might try. Paul Berlin remembered how the kid had spent hours thumbing through an old world atlas, studying the maps, asking odd questions: How steep were these mountains, how wide was this river, how thick were these jungles? It was just too bad. A real pity. Like winning the Bronze Star for shooting out a dink’s front teeth. Whistling in the dark, always whistling, chewing Black Jack, always chewing and whistling and smiling his frozen white smile. It was silly. It had always been silly, even during the good times, but now the silliness was sad. It couldn’t be done. It just wasn’t possible, and it was silly and sad.

The rain made it a hard climb. They did not reach the top of the first mountain until late afternoon.

After radioing in position coordinates, they moved along the summit to a cluster of granite boulders that overlooked the Quang Ngai plain. Below, clouds hid the paddies and the war. Above, in more clouds, were more mountains.

It was Eddie Lazzutti who found the spot where Cacciato had spent the night, a gently recessed rock formation roofed by a slate ledge. Inside was a pile of matted grass, a can of burnt-out Sterno, two chocolate wrappers, and a partly burned map. Paul Berlin recognized the map from Cacciato’s atlas.

“Cozy,” Stink said. “A real nest for our pigeon.”

The lieutenant bent down to examine the map. Most of it was burned away, crumbling as the old man picked it up, but parts could still be made out. In the left-hand corner a red dotted line ran through paddyland and up through the first small mountains of the Annamese Cordillera. The line ended there, apparently to be continued on a second map.

Lieutenant Corson held the map carefully, as if afraid it might break apart. “Impossible,” he said softly.

“True enough.”

“Absolutely impossible.”

They rested in Cacciato’s rock grotto. Tucked away, looking out over the wetly moving mountains to the west, the men were quiet. Eddie and Harold Murphy opened rations and ate slowly, using their fingers. Doc Peret seemed to sleep. Paul Berlin laid out a game of solitaire. For a long while they rested, no one speaking, then at last Oscar Johnson took out his pouch of makings, rolled a joint, inhaled, and passed it along. Things were peaceful. They smoked and watched the rain and clouds and wilderness. Cacciato’s den was snug and dry.

No one spoke until the ritual was ended.

Then, very softly, Doc said, “Maybe we should just turn back. Call an end to it.”

“Affirmative,” Murphy said. He gazed into the rain. “When the kid gets wet enough, cold enough, he’ll see how ridiculous it is. He’ll come back.”

“Sure.”

“So why not?” Doc turned to the lieutenant. “Why not pack it up, sir? Head back and call it a bummer.”

Stink Harris made a light tittering sound, not quite mocking.

“Seriously,” Doc kept on. “Let him go … MIA, strayed in battle. Sooner or later he’ll wake up, you know, and he’ll see how nutty it is and he’ll–”

The lieutenant stared into the rain. His face was yellow except for webs of shattered veins.

“So what say you, sir? Let him go?”

“Dumber than marbles,” Stink giggled. “Dumber than Friar Tuck.”

“And smarter than Stink Harris.”

“You know what, Murph?”

“Pickle it.”

“Ha! Who’s saying to pickle it?”

“Just stick it in vinegar,” said Harold Murphy. “That’s what.”

Stink giggled again but he shut up. Murphy was a big man.

“So what’s the verdict, sir? Turn around?”

The lieutenant was quiet. At last he shivered and crawled out into the rain with a wad of toilet paper. Paul Berlin sat alone, playing solitaire in the style of Las Vegas. Pretending ways to spend his earnings. Travel, expensive hotels, tips for everyone. Wine and song on white terraces, fountains blowing colored water. Pretending was his best trick to forget the war.

When the lieutenant returned he told them to saddle up.

“Turning back?” Murphy said.

The lieutenant shook his head. He looked sick.

“I knew it,” Stink crowed. “Can’t just waddle away from a war, ain’t that right, sir? Dummy’s got to be taught you can’t hump your way home.” Stink grinned and flicked his eyebrows at Harold Murphy. “Damn straight, I knew it.”

Cacciato had reached the top of the second mountain. Bareheaded, hands loosely at his sides, he looked down on them through a mix of fog and drizzle. Lieutenant Corson had the binoculars on him.

“Maybe he don’t see us,” Oscar said. “Maybe he’s lost.”

The old man made a vague, dismissive gesture. “He sees us. Sees us real fine.”

“Pop smoke, sir?”

“Why not? Sure, why not throw out some pretty smoke?” The lieutenant watched through the glasses while Oscar took out the smoke and pulled the pin and tossed it onto a level ledge along the trail. The smoke fizzled for a moment and then puffed up in a heavy cloud of lavender. “Oh, yes, he sees us. Sees us fine.”

“Bastard’s waving.”

“Isn’t he? Yes, I can see that, thank you.”

“Will you–?”

“Mother of Mercy.”

High up on the mountain, partly lost in the drizzle, Cacciato was waving at them with both arms. Not quite waving. The arms were flapping.

“Sick,” the lieutenant murmured. He sat down, handed the glasses to Paul Berlin, then began to rock himself as the purple smoke climbed the face of the mountain. “I tell you, I’m a sick, sick man.”

“Should I shout up to him?”

“Sick,” the lieutenant moaned. He kept rocking.

Oscar cupped his hands and hollered, and Paul Berlin watched through the glasses. Cacciato stopped waving. His head was huge through the binoculars. He was smiling. Very slowly, deliberately, Cacciato was spreading his arms out as if to show them empty, opening them up like wings, palms down. The kid’s face was fuzzy, bobbing in and out of mist, but it was a happy face. Then his mouth opened, and in the mountains there was thunder.

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Published in: on March 9, 2010 at 1:28 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Beloved, Let Us Once More Praise The Rain

Beloved, let us once more praise the rain.
Let us discover some new alphabet,
For this, the often praised; and be ourselves,
The rain, the chickweed, and the burdock leaf,
The green-white privet flower, the spotted stone,
And all that welcomes the rain; the sparrow too,—
Who watches with a hard eye from seclusion,
Beneath the elm-tree bough, till rain is done.
There is an oriole who, upside down,
Hangs at his nest, and flicks an orange wing,—
Under a tree as dead and still as lead;
There is a single leaf, in all this heaven
Of leaves, which rain has loosened from its twig:
The stem breaks, and it falls, but it is caught
Upon a sister leaf, and thus she hangs;
There is an acorn cup, beside a mushroom
Which catches three drops from the stooping cloud.
The timid bee goes back to the hive; the fly
Under the broad leaf of the hollyhock
Perpends stupid with cold; the raindark snail
Surveys the wet world from a watery stone…
And still the syllables of water whisper:
The wheel of cloud whirs slowly: while we wait
In the dark room; and in your heart I find
One silver raindrop,—on a hawthorn leaf,—
Orion in a cobweb, and the World.

—Conrad Aiken

Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 10:15 AM  Leave a Comment  
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A Rigidity, an Arrogance, and an Obstinacy

John Adams

FROM John Adams by David McCullough

A HARD NORTH SEA WINTER set in to match Adams’s mood. Days were bitterly cold and raw, with darkness descending at four in the afternoon and the air of Amsterdam thick with chimney smoke. With the canals frozen, thousands of skaters took to the ice, a spectacle that provided what little cheer Adams found in life.

His health was suffering. He worried about his sons. At the Latin School, because he spoke no Dutch, John Quincy had been placed with elementary students. The boy grew restless and disheartened. The rector of the school thought him impertinent and merited a thrashing, as he informed his father. Adams’s response was exactly what his own father’s would have been. “Send the boys to me this evening,” he answered. He had no wish to see his children subjected to such “littleness of soul,” he explained to Abigail in a letter in which he gave vent not only to his indignation at the schoolmaster, but at what he had come to see as a decidedly unattractive side to the Dutch character that he had no desire to see rub off on his sons. “The masters are mean-spirited wretches, punching, kicking, and boxing the children upon every turn,” he wrote.

No longer did he see the Dutch as “examples to the world,” but perceived now, bitterly, “a general littleness arising from the incessant contemplation of stivers and doits [pennies and nickels], which pervades the whole people.” Frugality and industry were virtues everywhere, but avarice and stinginess were not frugality.

The Dutch say that without a habit of thinking of every doit before you spend it, no man can be a good merchant or conduct trade with success. This I believe is a just maxim in general. But I would never wish to see a son of mine govern himself by it. It is the sure and certain way for an industrious man to be rich. It is the only possible way for a merchant to become the first merchant or the richest man in the place. But this is an object that I hope none of my children will ever aim at.

Through a young American named Benjamin Waterhouse, a student of medicine at the University of Leyden, Adams arranged for tutors for the two boys, and the opportunity for them to attend lectures at the university.

Such was the turmoil of Amsterdam that Adams now found it impossible even to arrange meetings. “Very few dare to see me,” he reported. Searching desperately for a sign that all was not lost, the best he could come up with was the popularity of new songs full of patriotic resentment toward the English. A woman who sang one such song on an Amsterdam street corner sold six hundred copies in an hour, he informed Congress. But the hard truth was that after five months in the Dutch Republic, Adams had yet to meet a single government official of any importance.

In December, the veteran British ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir Joseph Yorke, began openly threatening the Dutch, setting off something very like panic. “War is to a Dutchman the greatest of evils,” Adams wrote. “Yorke is so sensible of this that he keeps alive a continual fear of it.” At year’s end, “the high and mighty” Yorke abruptly departed and Britain commenced an undeclared war on Dutch shipping.

Convinced he must now gain recognition of American independence and arrange a Dutch-American alliance—and thus only, he had concluded, could he obtain a loan—Adams pressed Congress for greater authority. As winter progressed, his new commission arrived; Congress had designated him minister plenipotentiary to the Dutch Republic, which provided all the authority to be wished for.

Through February and March, despite the weather, Adams kept on the move, traveling back and forth between Amsterdam, Leyden, and The Hague, conferring with as many of his Dutch friends and contacts as possible. Again, as at Paris, the question was the timing of a formal announcement of his new powers.

Advised that his Amsterdam lodgings were too “obscure” for his new position, and that his effectiveness was being hurt by talk of this, Adams arranged for an American firm in Amsterdam to “hire” a suitable house—“the best house that is to be had at as cheap a rate as may be,” he wrote—and to have it furnished “decent enough for any character in Europe to dine in with a republican citizen.” In lengthy correspondence on the matter, he specified that the house be “large, roomy, and handsome, fit for the Hôtel des États-Unis d’Amérique.” He would need two manservants and a “good cook” (whether male or female he did not care). A “genteel carriage” would be required, as well as a coachman, and Adams was particular that the livery be in the Paris mode: deep blue coat and breeches, scarlet cape and waistcoats. (He also wanted the clothes returned when the time came for the servants to leave.) This was “new work” for him, he added, having never set up housekeeping before.

At Versailles, meanwhile, the Comte de Vergennes was writing to his ambassador at Philadelphia to say that Adams, in his role in the Netherlands, had become an embarrassment, an observation that La Luzerne was expected to pass along to his numerous friends in Congress. Especially distressing to Vergennes was the thought of Adams ever having any say in a peace settlement. “[He] has a rigidity, an arrogance, and an obstinacy that will cause him to foment a thousand unfortunate incidents…”

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Published in: on March 7, 2010 at 10:10 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Musee des Beaux Arts

Fall of Icarus" by Breughel

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

—W H Auden

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Recited by Jodie Foster

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Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 11:49 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Compass for the Mutant Rain Forest

Norte

Along the dense extremities of the forest north
that advance across the Panamanian isthmus,
ancient bridge for mustang, panther, and bear,
the trunks of towering andirobas intertwine
interminably in unfettered mahogany abandon.
Their barks are host to a protean foxfire that
radiates iconographic images in a flowing
expressionist relief of mythic proportions.
Travelers who venture this trek witness
these mutations and are soon transfixed.
Denied hopes coalesce, enrapture the weary.
Anguished women cradle the luminous souls
of dead babies and old friends half forgotten
in this swirling meccano of empires and loves.
The wasted alternatives of life are unveiled.
Though indios and neobiologists urge them
to flee the hypnotic force of such coercions,
these errant pilgrims prostrate themselves in
a mad chorus of wails and call the forest wall
Mural del Dios Verde, Mural of the Green God.

Sur

Along the avaricious trail of the forest south,
to the steep windswept cliffs of Patagonia
that rise ragged above rock-strewn beaches,
the emerald hunger stretches farther still
to taint the freezing waters off Cape Horn.
The winds that rake these seas now blow
from the north, warm, fragrant with pollen,
as if the forest could root on the icy cap.
Glassine flounder and neon frogs rain down
to pummel the decks of passing steamers.
But the gun-crack calving of melting bergs
and the slow thaw that extends the seas’ reach
expose no sure foothold for the forest to claim.
Even the shapeshifting woohli has yet to adapt
to the rough hibernal currents of this ocean.
The polar mariners who sail this route watch
the skies, cross themselves, shake their heads,
wonder if the next storm will be even stranger.
Beneath their breaths they curse the forest as
El Diluvio del Diablo, The Deluge of the Devil.

Este

Along the clawing tendrils of the forest east
that cloak the Amazon and its serpentine
tributaries—Madeira, Jacunda, Japurá—
once thriving passages for trade and travel,
only the most bestial of tribes now survive.
At dusk from the hills of Macapá and Belém
you can see the flicker of their campfires
against the gravid green of a dark horizon.
In less than a generation they have morphed
with the forest and are no longer human.
Forging a symbiosis with the force that
rules their world, some are viridescent,
mimicking the foliage that surrounds them.
Others, covered with bony plates, often
prey on all fours like porcine armadillos.
From Caracas in the North to the ramshackle
slums of Rio and São Paulo and Buenos Aires,
those who remain in the coastal enclaves call
the forest Creación Oscura, Dark Creation,
El Enfermo, Diseased One, Salvaje, Savage.

Oeste

Along the sweltering frontiers of the forest west,
striping the Andean foothills with wide shadows
and blanketing their no longer snowy heights,
the spikes of thousand-meter bromeliads sway
like the minarets of an organic metropolis.
The great reaches of flora that line these
slopes seem to roar in their rushing before
opening the cores of their inflorescence and
clasping entire settlements in a snap embrace.
A tenderizing mucilage bathes their spoils.
Those who flee this furious onslaught take
refuge in the lightless swamplands below and
return to pay homage, seeing these carnivorous
plants as rampant evolution running in reverse,
mankind succoring and serving the landscape.
The pathetic pageantry of their stark display
culminates in a sacramental sharing of pulcre,
an hallucinogen brewed from this succulent.
Stray revelers whisper the forest’s name as
La Bestia Caprichosa, The Capricious Beast.

Profundidades

In the impermeable fortress of the forest depths,
where each generation of growth destroys the last,
where each generation of fauna devours the last,
a sentience amoral and earthly dreams that the
only word for forest is el Mundo, the World.

—Bruce Boston and Robert Frazier

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Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 2:46 PM  Comments (2)  
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Manhattan in Big Sur

FROM Big Sur by Jack Kerouac

A big axe chopping contest began after breakfast, some of us sitting watching on the porch and the performers down below hacking away at the tree trunk which was over a foot thick’- They were chopping off two foot chunks, no easy job — I realized you can always study the character of a man by the way he chops wood — Monsanto an old lumberman up in Maine as I say now showed us how he conducted his whole life in fact by the way he took neat little short handled chops from both left and right angles getting his work done in reasonably short time without too much sweat — But his strokes were rapid — Whereas old Fagan pipe-in-mouth slogged away I guess the way he learned in Oregon and in the Northwest fire schools, also getting his job done, silently, not a word — But Cody’s fantastic fiery character showed in the way he went at the log with horrible force, when he brought down the axe with all his might and holding it far at the end you could hear the whole treetrunk groaning the whole length inside, runk, sometimes you could hear a lengthwise cracking going on, he is really very strong and he brought that axe down so hard his feet left the earth when it hit — He chopped off his log with the fury of a Greek god — nevertheless it took him longer and much more sweat than Monsanto

“Used to do this in a workgang in southern Arizony” he said, whopping one down that made the whole treetrunk dance off the ground — But it was like an example of vast but senseless strength, a picture of poor Cody’s life and in a sense my own — I too chopped with all my might and got madder and went faster and raked the log but took more time than Monsanto who watched us smiling — Little Arthur thereupon tried his luck but gave up after five strokes… The axe was like to carry him away anyway… Then Dave Wain demonstrated with big easy strokes and in no time we had five huge logs to use — But now it was time to get in the cars (McLear had re-arrived) and go driving south down the coast highway to a hot springs bath house down there, which sounded good to me at first. But the new Big Sur Autumn was now all winey sparkling blue which made the terribleness and giantness of the coast all the more clear to see in all its gruesome splendor, miles and miles of it snaking away south, our three jeeps twisting and turning the increasing curves, sheer drops at our sides, further ghostly high bridges to cross with smashings below — Tho all the boys are wowing to see it — To me it’s just an inhospitable madhouse of the earth, I’ve seen it enough and even swallowed it in that deep breath — The boys reassure me the hot springs bath will do me good (they see I’m gloomy now hungover for good) but when we arrive my heart sinks again as McLear points out to sea from the balcony of the outdoor pools: “Look out there floating in the sea weeds, a dead otter! ” — And sure enough it is a dead otter I guess, a big brown pale lump floating up and down mournfully with the swells and ghastly weeds, my otter, my dear otter, my dear otter I’d written poems about

“Why did he die? ” I ask myself in despair — “Why do they do that? ” — “What’s the sense of all this? ” — All the fellows are shading their eyes to get a better look at the big peaceful tortured hunk of seacow out there as tho it’s something of passing interest while tome it’s a blow across the eyes and down into my heart — The hot water pools are steaming, Fagan and Monsanto and the others are all sitting peacefully up to their necks, they’re all naked, but there’s a gang of fairies also there naked all standing around in various bath house postures that make me hesitate to take my clothes off just on general principles — In fact Cody doesnt even bother to do anything but lie down with his clothes on in the sun, on the balcony table, and just smoke — But I borrow McLear’s yellow bathingsuit and get in — “What ya wearing a bathingsuit in a hot springs pool for boy? ” says Fagan chuckling — With horror I realize there’s spermatazoa floating in the hot water… I look and I see the other men (the fairies) all taking good long looks at Ron Blake who stands there facing the sea with his arse for all to behold, not to mention McLear and Dave Wain too — But it’s very typical of me and Cody that we wont undress in this situation (we were both raised Catholics? ) — Supposedly the big sex heroes of our generation, in fact — You might think — But the combination of the strange silent watching fairy-men, and the dead otter out there, and the spermatazoa in the pools makes me sick, not to mention that when somebody informs me this bath house is owned by the young writer Kevin Cudahy whom I knew very well in New York and I ask one of the younger strangers where’s Kevin Cudahy he doesnt even deign to reply — Thinking he hasnt heard me I ask again, no reply, no notice, I ask a third time, this time he gets up and stalks out angrily to the locker rooms — It all adds up to the confusion that’s beginning to pile up in my battered drinking brain anyway, the constant reminders of death not the least of which was the death of my peaceful love of Raton Canyon now suddenly becoming a horror.

From the baths we go to Nepenthe which is a beautiful cliff top restaurant with vast outdoor patio, with excellent food, excellent waiters and management, good drinks, chess tables, chairs and tables to just sit in the sun and look at the grand coast — Here we all sit at various tables and Cody starts playing chess with everybody will join while he’s chomping away at those marvelous hamburgers called Heavenburgers (huge with all the side works) — Cody doesn’t like to just sit around and lightly chat away, he’s the kind of guy if he’s going to talk he has to do all the talking himself for hours till everything is exhaustedly explained, sans that he just wants to bend over a chessboard and say “He he heh, old Scrooge is saving up a pawn hey? cak! I got ya! ” — But while I’m sitting there discussing literature with McLear and Monsanto suddenly a strange couple of gentlemen nearby strike up an acquaintance — One of them is a youngster who says he is a lieutenant in the Army — I instantly (drunk on fifth Manhattan by now) go into my theory of guerilla warfare based on my observations the night before when it did seriously occur to me that if Monsanto, Arthur, Cody, Dave, Ben, Ron Blake and I were all members of one fighting unit (and all carrying canteens of booze on our belts) it would be very difficult for the enemy to hurt any of us because we’d be, as dear friends, watching so desperately closely over one another, which I tell the first lieutenant, which attracts the interest of the older man who admits that he’s a GENERAL in the Army — There are also some further homosexuals at a separate table which prompts Dave Wain to look up from the chess game at one quiet drowsy point and announce in his dry twang “Under redwood beams, people talking about homosexuality and war… call it my Nepenthe Haiku” — “Yass” says Cody checkmating him “see what you can ku about that m’boy and get out of there and I’ll noose you with my queen, dear. ” I mention the general only because there is also some-thing sinister about the fact that during this long binge I came across him and another general, two strange generals, and I’d never met any generals in my life — This first general was strange because he seemed too polite and yet there was something sinister about his steely eyes behind goof darkglasses — Something sinister too about the first lieutenant who guessed who we were (the San Francisco poets, a major nucleus of them indeed) and didn’t seem at all pleased tho the general seemed amused — Nevertheless in a sinister way the general seemed to take great interest in my theory about buddy units for guerilla warfare and when President Kennedy about a year later ordered just such a new scheme for part of our armed forces I wondered (still crazy even then but for new reasons) if the general had got an idea from me… The second general, even stranger, coming up, occurred when I was even more far gone.

Manhattans and more Manhattans and finally when we got back to the cabin in late afternoon I was feeling good but realized I was going to be finished tomorrow — But poor young Ron Blake asked me if he could stay with me in the cabin, the others were all going back to the city in the three cars, I couldn’t think of any way to reject his request in a harmless way so said yes… So when they all left suddenly I was alone with this mad beatnik kid singing me songs and all I wanta do is sleep — But I’ve got to make the best of it and not disappoint his believing heart. Because after all the poor kid actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all their lives into me so that I’ll jump up and down and say yes yes that’s right, which I cant do any more — My reason for coming to Big Sur for the summer being precisely to get away from that sort of thing — Like those pathetic live highschool kids who all came to my door in Long Island one night wearing jackets that said “Dharma Bums” on them, all expecting me to be 25 years old according to a mistake on a book jacket and here I am old enough to be their father — But no, hep swinging young jazzy Ron wants to dig everything, go to the beach, run and romp and sing, talk, write tunes, write stories, climb mountains, go hiking, see everything, do everything with everybody But having one last quart of port with me I agree to follow him to the beach.

We go down the old sad path of the bhikku and suddenly I see a dead mouse in the grass — “A wee dead mousie” I say cleverly poetically but suddenly I realize and remember now for the first time how I’ve left the cover off the rat poison in Monsanto’s shelf and so this is my mouse — It’s lying there dead — Like the otter in the sea — It’s my own personal mouse that I’ve carefully fed chocolate and cheese all summer but once again I’ve unconsciously sabotaged all these great plans of mine to be kind to living beings even bugs, once again I’ve murdered a mouse one way or the other — And on top of that when we come to the place where the garter snake usually lie; sunning itself, and I bring it to Ron’s attention, he suddenly yells “LOOKOUT! you never can tell what kind of snake it is! ” which really scares me, my heart pounds with horroi — My little friend the garter snake turns therefore with my head from a living being with a long green body into the evil serpent of Big Sur.

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Published in: on March 6, 2010 at 10:11 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World

The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.

Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet
That nobody seems to be there.
The soul shrinks

From all that is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every blessed day,
And cries,
“Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors,
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

“Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves;
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
keeping their difficult balance.”

—Richard Wilbur

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Recited by the Poet Richard Wilbur

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Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 10:09 PM  Comments (2)  
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Four Masks

The mask I see in the mirror:

A woman who has come to love silence,
who sees life through prisms, hexagonal
planes like the vision
of flying insects, so much color
breaking against reason. Thin
eyebrows. Nose off center.

The mask I wore for my mother:

Bright in the way of silk roses,
more than once it threw dinner
crashing to the floor and yet
was afraid to disobey.
At night it stood at the top of the long stairs
just to hear her talking.

The mask I swore my mother wore:

Small clouds like lace
on the brow. Eyepieces
I couldn’t see through.
Even her small shoulders
would make me cry. When she died
I saw her face.

The mask I passed on to my children:

Comes late for dinner
and leaves early, clears the dishes quickly.
This mask
is all relatives alive or dead,
drunk, sober, or beautiful. Oh God, yes,
at least beautiful.
Everyone at the table finds a window,
stares intently through.

—Cortney Davis

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Published in: on March 3, 2010 at 6:01 PM  Leave a Comment  
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War

Sometimes I have wanted to go to war.
The stories are always good — Thermopylae
Was good, the Gallic campaigns were as good
As you could get against barbarians,
The Crusades were outright inspirational.

Everyone ought to go off to a war
Before he is too old to have the good
Of it. The people we call pacifist
Forget (or never learned) the power of it,
The sense of godliness killing provides.

Who would not want to be an angel, high
Over the enemy’s cities with wings
Broad as the foreshadow of death? What boy
Cannot recall from his pitiless dreams
That carnage laid about him in his bed

Of adults and girls? War is for the young
And keeps them young; war is to make a man
Immortal; war is to subvert boredom
And all the dull authority of states.
Who favors war knows what liberty is.

Think about us. War would spare us the vice
Of guilt, the curse of inadequate love,
The remorse of aimlessness. War transforms;
It is a place to start from, props up pride,
Writes history. Out of war, art makes itself.

Sometimes I have wanted to go to war,
To turn flame in anyone’s heart. Old names
Dazzle me: Alexander, Genghis Khan,
Caesar, Napoleon — will any man
Shrink from riding such fame to his grave?

Are you the one gone soft now over peace?
Nonsense. Woman has always profited
From men at war. Since time began, if you
Camp-followed any conqueror, you too
Could count a hundred lovers on the sand.

—Robley Wilson

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Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 4:05 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Gallows, the Curse and the Cock

FROM The Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett

On the night of 25 November 1120 the White Ship set out for England and foundered off Barfleur with all hands save one. … The vessel was the latest thing in marine transport, fitted with all the devices known to the shipbuilder of the time. … The notoriety of this wreck is due to the very large number of distinguished persons on board; beside the king’s son and heir, there were two royal bastards, several earls and barons, and most of the royal household … its historical significance is that it left Henry without an obvious heir … its ultimate result was the disputed succession and the period of anarchy which followed Henry’s death.

—A. L. Poole,

From Domesday Book to Magna Carta

______________

PROLOGUE

1123

THE SMALL BOYS came early to the hanging.

It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting.

The boys despised everything their elders valued. They scorned beauty and mocked goodness. They would hoot with laughter at the sight of a cripple, and if they saw a wounded animal they would stone it to death. They boasted of injuries and wore their scars with pride, and they reserved their special admiration for mutilation: a boy with a finger missing could be their king. They loved violence; they would run miles to see bloodshed; and they never missed a hanging.

One of the boys piddled on the base of the scaffold. Another mounted the steps, put his thumbs to his throat and slumped, twisting his face into a grisly parody of strangulation: the others whooped in admiration, and two dogs came running into the marketplace, barking. A very young boy recklessly began to eat an apple, and one of the older ones punched his nose and took his apple. The young boy relieved his feelings by throwing a sharp stone at a dog, sending the animal howling home. Then there was nothing else to do, so they all squatted on the dry pavement in the porch of the big church, waiting for something to happen.

Candlelight flickered behind the shutters of the substantial wood and stone houses around the square, the homes of prosperous craftsmen and traders, as scullery maids and apprentice boys lit fires and heated water and made porridge. The color of the sky turned from black to gray. The townspeople came ducking out of their low doorways, swathed in heavy cloaks of coarse wool, and went shivering down to the river to fetch water.

Soon a group of young men, grooms and laborers and apprentices, swaggered into the marketplace. They turned the small boys out of the church porch with cuffs and kicks, then leaned against the carved stone arches, scratching themselves and spitting on the ground and talking with studied confidence about death by hanging. If he’s lucky, said one, his neck breaks as soon as he falls, a quick death, and painless; but if not he hangs there turning red, his mouth opening and shutting like a fish out of water, until he chokes to death; and another said that dying like that can take the time a man takes to walk a mile; and a third said it could be worse than that, he had seen one where by the time the man died his neck was a foot long.

The old women formed a group on the opposite side of the marketplace, as far as possible from the young men, who were liable to shout vulgar remarks at their grandmothers. They always woke up early, the old women, even though they no longer had babies and children to worry over; and they were the first to get their fires lit and their hearths swept. Their acknowledged leader, the muscular Widow Brewster, joined them, rolling a barrel of beer as easily as a child rolls a hoop. Before she could get the lid off there was a small crowd of customers waiting with jugs and buckets.

The sheriffs bailiff opened the main gate, admitting the peasants who lived in the suburb, in the lean-to houses against the town wall. Some brought eggs and milk and fresh butter to sell, some came to buy beer or bread, and some stood in the marketplace and waited for the hanging.

Every now and again people would cock their heads, like wary sparrows, and glance up at the castle on the hilltop above the town. They saw smoke rising steadily from the kitchen, and the occasional flare of a torch behind the arrow-slit windows of the stone keep. Then, at about the time the sun must have started to rise behind the thick gray cloud, the mighty wooden doors opened in the gatehouse and a small group came out. The sheriff was first, riding a fine black courser, followed by an ox cart carrying the bound prisoner. Behind the cart rode three men, and although their faces could not be seen at that distance, their clothes revealed that they were a knight, a priest and a monk. Two men-at-arms brought up the rear of the procession.

They had all been at the shire court, held in the nave of the church, the day before. The priest had caught the thief red-handed; the monk had identified the silver chalice as belonging to the monastery; the knight was the thief’s lord, and had identified him as a runaway; and the sheriff had condemned him to death.

While they came slowly down the hill, the rest of the town gathered around the gallows. Among the last to arrive were the leading citizens: the butcher, the baker, two leather tanners, two smiths, the cutler and the fletcher, all with their wives.

The mood of the crowd was odd. Normally they enjoyed a hanging. The prisoner was usually a thief, and they hated thieves with the passion of people whose possessions are hard-earned. But this thief was different. Nobody knew who he was or where he came from. He had not stolen from them, but from a monastery twenty miles away. And he had stolen a jeweled chalice, something whose value was so great that it would be virtually impossible to sell—which was not like stealing a ham or a new knife or a good belt, the loss of which would hurt someone. They could not hate a man for a crime so pointless. There were a few jeers and catcalls as the prisoner entered the marketplace, but the abuse was half-hearted, and only the small boys mocked him with any enthusiasm.

Most of the townspeople had not been in court, for court days were not holidays and they all had to make a living, so this was the first time they had seen the thief. He was quite young, somewhere between twenty and thirty years of age, and of normal height and build, but otherwise his appearance was strange. His skin was as white as the snow on the roofs, he had protuberant eyes of startling bright green, and his hair was the color of a peeled carrot. The maids thought he was ugly; the old women felt sorry for him; and the small boys laughed until they fell down.

The sheriff was a familiar figure, but the other three men who had sealed the thief’s doom were strangers. The knight, a fleshy man with yellow hair, was clearly a person of some importance, for he rode a war-horse, a huge beast that cost as much as a carpenter earned in ten years. The monk was much older, perhaps fifty or more, a tall, thin man who sat slumped in his saddle as if life were a wearisome burden to him. Most striking was the priest, a young man with a sharp nose and lank black hair, wearing black robes and riding a chestnut stallion. He had an alert, dangerous look, like a black cat that could smell a nest of baby mice.

A small boy took careful aim and spat at the prisoner. It was a good shot and caught him between the eyes. He snarled a curse and lunged at the spitter, but he was restrained by the ropes attaching him to the sides of the cart. The incident was not remarkable except that the words he spoke were Norman French, the language of the lords. Was he high-born, then? Or just a long way from home? Nobody knew.

The ox cart stopped beneath the gallows. The sheriff’s bailiff climbed onto the flatbed of the cart with the noose in his hand. The prisoner started to struggle. The boys cheered—they would have been disappointed if the prisoner had remained calm. The man’s movements were restricted by the ropes tied to his wrists and ankles, but he jerked his head from side to side, evading the noose. After a moment the bailiff, a huge man, stepped back and punched the prisoner in the stomach. The man doubled over, winded, and the bailiff slipped the rope over his head and tightened the knot. Then he jumped down to the ground and pulled the rope taut, securing its other end to a hook in the base of the gallows.

This was the turning point. If the prisoner struggled now, he would only die sooner.

The men-at-arms untied the prisoner’s legs and left him standing alone on the bed of the cart, his hands bound behind his back. A hush fell on the crowd.

There was often a disturbance at this point: the prisoner’s mother would have a screaming fit, or his wife would pull out a knife and rush the platform in a last-minute attempt to rescue him. Sometimes the prisoner called upon God for forgiveness or pronounced blood-curdling curses on his executioners. The men-at-arms now stationed themselves on either side of the scaffold, ready to deal with any incident.

That was when the prisoner began to sing.

He had a high tenor voice, very pure. The words were French, but even those who could not understand the language could tell by its plaintive melody that it was a song of sadness and loss.

A lark, caught in a hunter’s net

Sang sweeter then than ever,

As if the falling melody

Might wing and net dissever.

As he sang he looked directly at someone in the crowd. Gradually a space formed around the person, and everyone could see her.

She was a girl of about fifteen. When people looked at her they wondered why they had not noticed her before. She had long dark-brown hair, thick and rich, which came to a point on her wide forehead in what people called a devil’s peak. She had regular features and a sensual, full-lipped mouth. The old women noticed her thick waist and heavy breasts, concluded that she was pregnant, and guessed that the prisoner was the father of her unborn child. But everyone else noticed nothing except her eyes. She might have been pretty, but she had deep-set, intense eyes of a startling golden color, so luminous and penetrating that when she looked at you, you felt she could see right into your heart, and you averted your eyes, scared that she would discover your secrets. She was dressed in rags, and tears streamed down her soft cheeks.

The driver of the cart looked expectantly at the bailiff. The bailiff looked at the sheriff, waiting for the nod. The young priest with the sinister air nudged the sheriff impatiently, but the sheriff took no notice. He let the thief carry on singing. There was a dreadful pause while the ugly man’s lovely voice held death at bay.

At dusk the hunter took his prey,

The lark his freedom never.

All birds and men are sure to die

But songs may live forever.

When the song ended the sheriff looked at the bailiff and nodded. The bailiff shouted “Hup!” and lashed the ox’s flank with a length of rope. The carter cracked his whip at the same time. The ox stepped forward, the prisoner standing in the cart staggered, the ox pulled the cart away, and the prisoner dropped into midair. The rope straightened and the thief’s neck broke with a snap.

There was a scream, and everyone looked at the girl.

It was not she who had screamed, but the cutler’s wife beside her. But the girl was the cause of the scream. She had sunk to her knees in front of the gallows, with her arm! stretched out in front of her, the position adopted to utter a curse. The people shrank from her in fear: everyone knew that the curses of those who had suffered injustice were particularly effective, and they had all suspected that some thing was not quite right about this hanging. The small boys were terrified.

The girl turned her hypnotic golden eyes on the three strangers, the knight, the monk and the priest; and then she pronounced her curse, calling out the terrible words in ringing tones: “I curse you with sickness and sorrow, with hunger and pain; your house shall be consumed by fire, and your children shall die on the gallows; your enemies shall prosper, and you shall grow old in sadness and regret, and die in foulness and agony. …” As she spoke the last words the girl reached into a sack on the ground beside her and pulled out a live cockerel. A knife appeared in her hand from nowhere, and with one slice she cut off the head of the cock.

While the blood was still spurting from the severed neck she threw the beheaded cock at the priest with the black hair. It fell short, but the blood sprayed over him, and over the monk and the knight on either side of him. The three men twisted away in loathing, but blood landed on each of them, spattering their faces and staining their garments.

The girl turned and ran.

The crowd opened in front of her and closed behind her. For a few moments there was pandemonium. At last the sheriff caught the attention of his men-at-arms and angrily told them to chase her. They began to struggle through the crowd, roughly pushing men and women and children out of the way, but the girl was out of sight in a twinkling, and though the sheriff would search for her, he knew he would not find her.

He turned away in disgust. The knight, the monk and the priest had not watched the flight of the girl. They were still staring at the gallows. The sheriff followed their gaze. The dead thief hung at the end of the rope, his pale young face already turning bluish, while beneath his gently swinging corpse the cock, headless but not quite dead, ran around in a ragged circle on the bloodstained snow.

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Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 3:20 PM  Comments (2)  
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Strange Interview

FROM Tai-Pan by James Clavell

The village of Aberdeen lay dark and humid and silent under the full moon. The streets were deserted and the doors of the huts barred tight. Hundreds of sampans were moored in the still, muddy waters. And though they were as jam-packed as the huts, there was neither sound nor movement aboard.

Struan was standing at the prearranged place, at the fork in the path just outside the village, beside the well. The well was rock-lipped and Struan had hung three lanterns on it. He was alone and his gold fob watch told him it was almost time. He wondered if Wu Kwok and his men would come from the village or from the sampans or from the desolate hills. Or from the sea.

He studied the sea. Nothing moved but the waves. Somewhere out in the darkness, sailing close-hauled, was China Cloud, her men at action stations. Too far for those aboard to observe him closely, but near enough to see the light of the lanterns. Struan’s orders were that if the lanterns were abruptly extinguished, the men were to take to the boats and come ashore with musket and cutlass.

The muted voices of the handful of men he had brought along wafted up faintly from the beach. They were waiting beside the two cutters, armed and ready, also watching the lanterns’ light. He listened intently but could not distinguish what they were saying. I’d be safer to be completely alone, he told himself. I want no prying eyes in this. But to be ashore alone wi’out guards’d be foolish. Worse, it’d be testing my joss. Aye.

He stiffened as a dog snarled in the quiet of the village. He listened intently and watched for moving shadows. But he saw none and knew that the dog was only scavenging. He leaned back against the well and began to relax, content to be back on the island. Content that May-may and the children were safe in the house that had been built for them in Happy Valley.

Robb and Culum had handled expertly all that had to be done while he was away. The small house, with surrounding walls and strong gates, had been completed. Two hundred and fifty men had worked on it day and night.

There were still many details to be finished and all of the garden yet to be planted, but the house itself was habitable and mostly furnished. It was built of bricks and had a fireplace and wooden roof. The rooms were beamed. Many of the walls were paper-covered, but a few were painted, and all had glass windows.

The house faced the sea and contained a master suite and dining room and large living room. And, to the west, a latticed haven around a garden, private from the rest of the house. Here were May-may’s quarters and the children’s rooms, and beyond them the servants’ quarters.

Struan had brought May-may and the children and Ah Sam, the amah, with him into the house the day before yesterday and had settled them there. A trusted cook boy named Lim Din and a wash amah and makee-learnee—as apprentice scullion maids were called—had come back with him from Canton.

And though no Europeans had seen May-may, most of them were sure that the Tai-Pan had brought his mistress into the first permanent habitation on Hong Kong. They chuckled among themselves, or denounced him through their jealousy. But they said nothing to their wives. In due course they would want to bring their own mistresses and the less said the better. The wives who suspected held their peace. There was nothing they could do.

Struan had been very pleased with his house and with the progress on the warehouses and factory. And also with the results of his public coldness toward Culum. Culum had told him covertly that already he had had the first tentative probe from Brock, and that Wilf Tillman had invited him aboard Cooper-Tillman’s expensive opium hulk and had entertained him lavishly.

Culum had said that trade was discussed—how the future of Asia depended vitally on cooperation, particularly between the Anglo-Saxon races. He had said that Shevaun had been at dinner and that she had been very beautiful and vivacious.

A fish leaped out of the water, hung for a moment in the air, and fell back again. Struan watched for a moment, listening. Then he relaxed again and let his mind roam.

Shevaun’d make a good match for Culum, Struan thought dispassionately. Or for yoursel’. Aye. She’d make a fine hostess and an interesting addition to the banquets you’ll be giving in London. To the lords and ladies and members of Parliament. And Cabinet ministers. Will you buy yoursel’ a baronetcy? You could afford to ten times over. If Blue Cloud’s home first. Or second, even third—so long as she’s safe. If the season’s trade is safely concluded, then you can buy yoursel’ an earldom.

Shevaun’s young enough. She’d bring a useful dowry and interesting political connections. What about Jeff Cooper? He’s head over heels in love with her. If she says no to him, that’s his problem.

What about May-may? Would a Chinese wife bar you from the inner sanctum? Certainly. She would weigh the dice heavily against you. Out of the question.

Wi’out the right sort of wife English social life will be impossible. Diplomacy is mostly settled in private drawing rooms, in luxury. Perhaps the daughter, of a lord, or earl or Cabinet minister? Wait till you’re home, eh? There’s plenty of time.

Is there?

A dog barked shrilly among the sampans and then shrieked as others fell on it. The sounds of the death battle rose and fell, then ceased. Silence again but for the furtive growling, scuffling, ripping in the darkness as the victors began to feed.

Struan was watching the sampans, his back to the lanterns. He saw a shadow move, and another, and soon a silent press of Chinese was leaving the floating village and grouping on the shore. He saw Scragger.

Struan held his pistol loosely and waited calmly, searching the darkness for Wu Kwok. The men came up with the path noiselessly, Scragger cautiously in the middle. They stopped near the well and stared at Struan. All were young, in their early twenties, all dressed in black tunics and black trousers, thonged sandals on their feet, large coolie hats masking their faces.

“Top of the evening, Tai-Pan,” Scragger said softly, on guard and readying for instant retreat.

“Where’s Wu Kwok?”

“He asks your pardon, like, but he be powerful busy. Here be the ’undred. Take the pick and let’s be off, hey?”

“Tell them to split themsel’ into tens and to strip.”

“Strip, did y’say?”

“Aye. Strip, by God!”

Scragger blinked at Struan. Then he shrugged and went back to the men and spoke in soft singsong. The Chinese chattered quietly, then sorted themselves into separate tens and took off their clothes.

Struan beckoned to the first ten and they walked into the light. From some of the groups he picked one, from others two or three, from a few, none. He chose with utmost care. He knew he was assembling a task force which would spearhead his advance into the heart of China. If he could bend them to his will. The men who would not meet his eye he excluded immediately. Those whose queues were ratty and unkempt he passed over. Those with weak physiques were not considered. Those whose faces were dotted with smallpox marks had a point in their favor—for Struan knew that smallpox ravaged ships in all the seas, and that a man who had had the disease and had recovered was a man immune and strong and one who knew the value of life. Those with well-healed knife wounds he favored. Those who bore their nakedness carelessly he approved. Those who bore their nakedness with hostility he scrutinized painstakingly, knowing that violence and the sea are shipmates. Some he picked for the hatred in their eyes and some only because of a hunch he had when he looked into their faces.

Scragger watched the selecting with growing impatience. He drew his knife and repeatedly threw it into the dirt.

At last Struan had finished. “These are the men I want. They can all dress now.”

Scragger barked an order and the men dressed. Struan took out a sheaf of papers and handed one to Scragger.

“You can read this out to them.”

“Wot be it?”

“A regulation indenture. Rates of pay and terms of five years’ service. They’re all to sign one.”

“I doan read. An’ wot’s paper for, eh? Wu Fang Choi’s tol’ them they be yorn for five year.”

Struan gave him another sheet covered with Chinese characters. “Give this to someone who can read. They’ll each sign or I will na accept them and the deal is off.”

“Doings things ri’ht proper, baint you?” Scragger took the paper and called out to a short, pockmarked Chinese who had been selected. The man came forward, and taking the paper, studied it under the lantern’s light. Scragger jerked a thumb at those who had been rejected and they disappeared into the sampans.

The man began to read.

“What’s his name?”

“Fong.”

“Fong what?”

“Fong wot you likes. Who’s t’know wot name these monkeys run under?”

The Chinese were listening intently to Fong. At one point a muted, nervous gust of laughter wafted from them. “Wot’s funny?” Scragger asked in Cantonese. Fong took a long time to explain.

Scragger turned on Struan. “Wot’s all this about, eh? They’s to promise not to fornicate and not to marry for the five year? That baint proper. Wot d’you think they be?”

“That’s just the normal clause, Scragger. All indentures have the same.”

“Not seamen’s papers, by God.”

“They’re to be captains and officers, so they must have indenture papers. To make it legal.”

“Very unproper, if you asks me. You mean they can’t bed a doxy for five years?”

“It’s only a formality. But they canna marry.”

Scragger turned and made a short speech. Again there was laughter. “I sayed they’s to obey you like God all-bloody-mighty. ’Cepting in fornication.” He wiped the sweat off his face. “Wu Fang’s tol’ ’em they be yors for five year. So there be no need to worry.”

“Why’re you so nervous, eh?”

“Nothing. Nothing, I tells you.”

Fong continued to read. There was a hush and someone asked for a clause to be repeated. Scragger’s interest increased. It was about their pay. Potential captains were to be paid fifty pounds for the first year, seventy the second and the third, a hundred when they had a first mate’s ticket and a hundred and fifty with their master’s. A sixtieth share of profits for any ships they captained. A bonus of twenty pounds if they learned English in three months.

“A hundred and fifty nicker be more’n they be earning in ten years,” Scragger said.

“You want a job?”

“I be happy with me present employ, thankee kindly.” He screwed up his face as a thought struck him. “Wu Fang won’t be paying all that nicker,” he said cagily.

“He will na be asked. These men’ll earn every penny, you can be sure of that. Or they’ll be beached.”

“So long as me guv’s not to pay, you pays ’em wot you likes and wastes yor own money.”

After Fong had finished reading the document, Struan made each man write his name in characters on a copy. Every man could write. And he made each man daub his left palm with chop ink and imprint the palm on the back of the paper.

“Wot be that for?”

“Every hand palm’s different. Now I know each man—whatever his name. Where’re the boys?”

“You want the men t’ the boats?”

“Aye.” Struan gave Fong a lantern and motioned him to the beach. The other men followed silently.

“The picking and papering were clever, Tai-Pan. Yo’re right smart.” Scragger sucked the end of his knife pensively. “I heared you one-upped Brock right proper. Over the bullion too.”

Struan glanced back at Scragger, abruptly suspicious. “There were Europeans in that attack, so Brock said. Were you one of them?”

“If I’d been ordered in by Wu Fang, Tai-Pan, there beed no failure. Wu Fang Choi doan like failure. Musta beed some poxy locals. Terrible.” Scragger peered around the darkness. When he’d made sure they were quite alone, he spoke conspiratorially. “Wu Kwok be Fukienese. He come from Quemoy, up the coast, eh? You know the island?”

“Aye.”

“Midsummer Night there be a festival. Wu Kwok be there for sure. Something to do with his ancestors.” Scragger’s eyes took on a malevolent glitter. “If a frigate or two was cruising there, why, he be caught like a poxy gutter rat in a barrel.”

Struan smiled scornfully. “That he would!”

“It be th’ truth I tells you, by God. You’ve me oath, by God. That bugger tricked me into giving you me oath when it were lie and I’ll not forgive that. Scragger’s oath be as good as yorn!”

“Aye. Of course. Do you think I’d trust a man who’d sell his master like a rat?”

“He baint my master. Wu Fang Choi’s me guv’, no one else. I swore ’legiance to him, no other. You’ve me oath.”

Struan contemplated Scragger. “I’ll think about Midsummer Night.”

“You’ve me oath. I want him deaded, by God. A man’s oath be all he’s got twixt hisself and damnation. That swine took mine, God curse him, so I wants him deaded to pay.”

“Where’re the boys?”

“They’s to be toffs, like you sayed?”

“Hurry it up, I want to be off.”

Scragger turned and whistled into the darkness. Three small shadows moved out of the sampans. The boys walked cautiously down the rickety gangplank onto the ground and hurried up the path. Struan’s eyes widened as the boys came into the light. One was Chinese. One was Eurasian. And the last was a grubby little English urchin. The Chinese boy was richly gowned, his queue thick and well plaited. He carried a bag. The other two were pathetically dressed in grimy pseudo-English boys’ clothes—their frock coats homespun, their little top hats battered, and their trousers and shoes homemade and crudely stitched. Over the shoulders each carried a stick with a bundle dangling from the end.

All the boys tried desperately—and unsuccessfully—to cover their anxiety.

“This be Wu Pak Chuk,” Scragger said. The Chinese boy bowed nervously. “He be Wu Fang Choi’s grandson. One of ’em, but not from Wu Kwok. And these be me own lads.” He pointed proudly at the little urchin, who flinched involuntarily. “This be Fred. He be six. And this’n’s Bert, seven.”

He made a slight motion and both boys doffed their hats and bowed and mumbled something through their panic and looked back at their father to see if they had done it right. Bert, the Eurasian boy, had had his queue coiled under his hat, but now, from all the fidgeting, the queue hung down his back. The urchin’s hair was filthy and, like his father’s, tied with a piece of tarred hemp at the nape of his neck.

“Come over here, lads,” Struan said compassionately.

The urchin took his half brother’s hand and the two came slowly forward. They stopped, barely breathing. The English boy wiped a dribble of mucus from his nose with the back of his hand.

“You’re Fred?”

“Yus, Yor Worship,” he whispered, scarcely audible.

“Speak up, lad,” Scragger said, and the boy blurted out, “Yus, Yor Worship, I be Fred.”

“I be Bert, Yor Worship.” The Eurasian quailed as Struan looked at him. He was a tall, handsome lad with beautiful teeth and golden skin. He was the tallest of the three.

Struan glanced at Wu Pak. The boy lowered his eyes and scuffed at the earth.

“He does na speak English?”

“No. But Bert here speaks his tongue. An’ Fred some words. Bert’s ma be Fukienese.” Scragger’s discomfort worsened.

“Where’s your mother, Fred?”

“Dead, Yor Worship,” the urchin choked out. “She be dead, sirr.”

“She be deaded two year back. Scurvy got her,” Scragger said.

“You’ve Englishwomen with your fleet?”

“Some has. Back over there, lads,” he said, and his sons fled to where he was pointing and stood rock-still, out of hearing. Wu Pak hesitated, then ran back and stood close beside them.

Scragger dropped his voice. “Fred’s ma were convict. Transported ten year for stealing coal in the depth of winter. We was married by a priest in Australia but he were renegade so maybe it weren’t proper. We was married anyways. I give her me oath afore she deaded to do right by the lad.”

Struan took out more papers. “These give me guardianship of the boys. Until they’re twenty-one. You can sign for your sons but what about Wu Pak? Should be a relation.”

“I’ll put me mark on all. You got one for me to show Wu Fang? Wot I signeded?”

“Aye. You can take one.”

Struan began to fill in the names, but Scragger stopped him. “Tai-Pan, doan put Scragger on the boys. Put another name. Any you likes—no, doan tell me wot,” he added quickly. “Any name. You think of a good one.” The sweat was beading his forehead. His fingers trembled as he took the pencil and made his mark. “Fred’s to forget me. An’ his ma. Do yor best with Bert, eh? His ma’s still me woman and she bain’t bad, for a heathen. Do yor best for ’em and you’ve a friend for life. Me oath on’t. They both beed taught to say their prayers proper.” He blew his nose in his fingers and wiped them on his trousers. “Wu Pak’s got to write once a month to Jin-qua. Oh yus, and yor t’bill Jin-qua for the schooling and wot. Once a year. They’s all to go to the same school and vittle together.”

He beckoned to the Chinese boy. Wu Pak came forward reluctantly. Scragger jerked a thumb toward the boats and the boy left obediently. Then he beckoned his sons.

“I be off now, lads.”

The boys ran to him and clung to him and begged him not to send them away, their tears streaming and terror overwhelming them. But he pushed them off and forced his voice hard. “Be off with you now. Obey the Tai-Pan here. He’s t’be like a dad to yer.”

“Doan send us’n off, Dad,” Fred said piteously. “I beed a good boy. Bert’n me be good boys, Dad, doan send us’n off.”

They stood in the enormousness of their grief, their shoulders heaving.

Scragger cleared his throat noisily and spat. After a second’s hesitation, he jerked out his knife and seized Bert’s queue. The Eurasian squealed with horror and tried to fight free. But Scragger chopped off the queue and cuffed the hysterical boy hard enough to bring him out of shock, but no harder.

“Oh, Dad,” Fred said tremulously in his little piping voice, “you knowed Bert promised his mum to keep his hair proper.”

“Better I do’s it, Fred, afore another,” Scragger said, his voice breaking. “Bert doan need it now. He’s t’be toff like you.”

“I doan want to be toff, I want t’ stay home.”

Scragger tousled Bert’s head a last time. And Fred’s.

“ ’Bye, my sons,” he said. He rushed away and the night swallowed him.

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Published in: on March 1, 2010 at 5:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Eyes on the ‘Bird

FROM Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

MARIA

WHAT MAKES IAGO EVIL? some people ask. I never ask.

Another example, one which springs to mind because Mrs. Burstein saw a pygmy rattler in the artichoke garden this morning and has been intractable since: I never ask about snakes. Why should Shalimar attract kraits. Why should a coral snake need two glands of neurotoxic poison to survive while a king snake, so similarly marked, needs none. Where is the Darwinian logic there. You might ask that. I never would, not any more. I recall an incident reported not long ago in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner: two honeymooners, natives of Detroit, found dead in their Scout camper near Boca Raton, a coral snake still coiled in the thermal blanket. Why? Unless you are prepared to take the long view, there is no satisfactory answer to such questions.

Just so. I am what I am. To look for “reasons” is beside the point. But because the pursuit of reasons is their business here, they ask me questions. Maria, yes or no: I see a cock in this inkblot. Maria, yes or no: A large number of people are guilty of bad sexual conduct, I believe my sins are unpardonable, I have been disappointed in love. How could I answer? How could it apply? NOTHING APPLIES, I print with the magnetized IBM pencil. What does apply, they ask later, as if the word “nothing” were ambiguous, open to interpretation, a questionable fragment of an Icelandic rune. There are only certain facts, I say, trying again to be an agreeable player of the game. Certain facts, certain things that happened. (Why bother, you might ask. I bother for Kate. What I play for here is Kate. Carter put Kate in there and I am going to get her out.) They will misread the facts, invent connections, will extrapolate reasons where none exist, but I told you, that is their business here.

So they suggested that I set down the facts, and the facts are these: My name is Maria Wyeth. That is pronounced Mar-eye-ah, to get it straight at the outset. Some people here call me “Mrs. Lang,” but I never did. Age, thirty-one. Married. Divorced. One daughter, age four. (I talk about Kate to no one here. In the place where Kate is they put electrodes on her head and needles in her spine and try to figure what went wrong. It is one more version of why does a coral snake have two glands of neurotoxic poison. Kate has soft down on her spine and an aberrant chemical in her brain. Kate is Kate. Carter could not remember the soft down on her spine or he would not let them put needles there.) From my mother I inherited my looks and a tendency to migraine. From my father I inherited an optimism which did not leave me until recently.

Details: I was born in Reno, Nev., and moved nine years later to Silver Wells, Nev., pop. then 28, now 0. We moved down to Silver Wells because my father lost the Reno house in a private game and happened to remember that he owned this town, Silver Wells. He had bought it or won it or maybe his father left it to him, I’m not sure which and it doesn’t matter to you. We had a lot of things and places that came and went, a cattle ranch with no cattle and a ski resort picked up on somebody’s second mortgage and a motel that would have been advantageously situated at a freeway exit had the freeway been built; I was raised to believe that what came in on the next roll would always be better than what went out on the last. I no longer believe that, but I am telling you how it was. What we had in Silver Wells was three hundred acres of mesquite and some houses and a Flying A and a zinc mine and a Tonopah & Tidewater RR siding and a trinket shop and later, after my father and his partner Benny Austin hit on the idea that Silver Wells was a natural tourist attraction, a midget golf course and a reptile museum and a restaurant with some slots and two crap tables. The slots were not exactly moneymakers because the only person who played them was Paulette, with nickels from the cashbox. Paulette ran the restaurant and (I see now) balled my father and sometimes let me pretend to cashier after school. I say “pretend” because there were no customers. As it happened the highway my father counted on came nowhere near and the money ran out and my mother got sick and Benny Austin went back to Vegas, I ran into him in the Flamingo a few years ago. “Your father’s only Waterloo was he was a man always twenty years before his time,” Benny advised me that night in the Flamingo. ‘The ghost-town scheme, the midget golf, the automatic blackjack concept, what do you see today? Harry Wyeth could be a Rockefeller in Silver Wells today.”

“There isn’t any Silver Wells today,” I said. “It’s in the middle of a missile range.”

“I’m speaking about then, Maria. As it was.”

Benny called for a round of Cuba Libres, a drink I have never known anyone but my mother and father and Benny Austin to order, and I gave him some chips to play for me and went to the ladies’ room and never came back. I told myself it was because I didn’t want Benny to see the kind of man I was with, I was with a man who was playing baccarat with hundred-dollar bills behind the rope, but that wasn’t all of it. I might as well lay it on the line, I have trouble with as it was.

I mean it leads nowhere. Benny Austin, my mother sitting in Paulette’s empty restaurant when it was 120° outside looking through her magazines for contests we could enter (Waikiki, Paris France, Roman Holiday, my mother’s yearnings suffused our life like nerve gas, cross the ocean in a silver plane, she would croon to herself and mean it, see the jungle when it’s wet with rain), the three of us driving down to Vegas in the pickup and then driving home again in the clear night, a hundred miles down and a hundred back and nobody on the highway either way, just the snakes stretched on the warm asphalt and my mother with a willted gardenia in her dark hair and my father keeping a fifth of Jim Beam on the floorboard and talking about his plans, he always had a lot of plans, I never in my life had any plans, none of it makes any sense, none of it adds up.

New York: what sense did that make? An eighteen-year-old girl from Silver Wells, Nevada, graduates from the Consolidated Union High School in Tonopah and goes to New York to take acting lessons, how do you figure it? My mother thought being an actress was a nice idea, she used to cut my hair in bangs to look like Margaret Sullavan, and my father said not to be afraid to go because if certain deals worked out as anticipated he and my mother would be regular airline passengers between Las Vegas and New York City, so I went. As it turned out, the last time but once I ever saw my mother was sitting in the Vegas airport drinking a Cuba Libre, but there you are. Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes. I watch a hummingbird, throw the I Ching but never read the coins, keep my mind in the now. New York. Let me stick to certain facts. What happened was this: I looked all right (I’m not telling you I was blessed or cursed, I’m telling a fact, I know it from all the pictures) and somebody photographed me and before long I was getting $100 an hour from the agencies and $50 from the magazines which in those days was not bad and I knew a lot of Southerners and faggots and rich boys and that was how I spent my days and nights. The night my mother ran the car off the highway outside Tonopah I was with a drunk rich boy at the old Morocco, as close as I could figure later: I didn’t know about it for a couple of weeks because the coyotes tore her up before anybody found her and my father couldn’t tell me. (‘Jesus but we had ‘a good thing going in Silver Wells,” Benny Austin said that night in the Flamingo, and maybe they did, maybe I did, maybe I never should have left, but that line of thinking leads nowhere because as I told Benny there is no Silver Wells. The last I heard of Paulette she was living in a Sun City. Think that one over.) My father’s letter was mailed to an old address and forwarded, I read it in a taxi one morning when I was late for a sitting and when I hit the f act in the middle of the second paragraph I began to scream and did not work for a month after. The letter is still in my makeup box but I am careful not to read it unless I am drunk, which in my current situation is never. “This is a bad hand but God if there is one, and Honey I sincerely believe there must be ‘Something, never meant it to set you back in your Plans,” is how it ends. “Don’t let them bluff you back there because you’re holding all the aces.”

Easy aces. I am not sure what year it was because I have this problem with as it was, but after a while I had a bad time. (There, you will say now, she believed her sins were unpardonable, but I told you, nothing applies.) The tulips on Park Avenue looked dirty and I was sent twice to Montego Bay to get some color back in my face but I could not sleep alone and stayed up late and it was falling apart with Ivan Costello and everything showed in the camera by then. Of course I did not get back to Nevada that year because that was the year I screamed at Ivan and married Carter, and the next was the year we came here and Carter put me in a couple of little pictures (one you may have seen, a doctor here claims to have seen it but he will say anything to make me talk, the other never distributed) and I don’t know what happened the year after that and then I started getting to Nevada quite a bit, but by then my father was dead and I was not married any more.

Those are the facts. Now I lie in the sun and play solitaire and listen to the sea (the sea is down the cliff but I am not allowed to swim, only on Sundays when we are accompanied) and watch a hummingbird. I try not to think of dead things and plumbing. I try not to hear the air conditioner in that bedroom in Encino. I try not to live in Silver Wells or in New York or with Carter. I try to live in the now and keep my eye on the hummingbird. I see no one I used to know, but then I’m not just crazy about a lot of people. I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game?

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Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 9:11 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Providence

I walked away with your face
stolen from a crowded room,
& the sting of requited memory
lived beneath my skin. A name
raw on my tongue, in my brain, a glimpse
nestled years later like a red bird
among wet leaves on a dull day.

A face. The tilt of a head. Dark
lipstick. Aletheia. The unknown
marked on a shoulder, night
weather in our heads.
I pushed out of this half-stunned
yes, begging light, beyond the caul’s
shadow, dangling the lifeline of Oh.

I took seven roads to get here
& almost died three times.
How many near misses before
new days slouched into the left corner
pocket, before the hanging fruit
made me kneel? I crossed
five times in the blood to see

the plots against the future —
descendent of a house that knows
all my strong & weak points.
No bounty of love apples glistened
with sweat, a pear-shaped lute
plucked in the valley of the tuber rose
& Madonna lily. Your name untied

every knot in my body, a honey-eating
animal reflected in shop windows
& twinned against this underworld.
Out of tide-lull & upwash
a perfect hunger slipped in
tooled by an eye, & this morning
makes us the oldest song in any god’s throat.

We had gone back walking
on our hands. Opened by a kiss,
by fingertips on the Abyssinian
stem & nape, we bloomed
from underneath stone. Moon-pulled
fish skirted the gangplank,
a dung-scented ark of gopherwood.

Now, you are on my skin, in my mouth
& hair as if you were always
woven in my walk, a rib
unearthed like a necklace of sand dollars
out of black hush. You are a call
& response going back to the first
praise-lament, the old wish

made flesh. The two of us
a third voice, an incantation
sweet-talked & grunted out of The Hawk’s
midnight horn. I have you inside
a hard question, & it won’t let go,
hooked through the gills & strung up
to the western horizon. We are one,

burning with belief till the thing
inside the cage whimpers
& everything crazes out to a flash
of silver. Begged into the fat juice
of promises, our embrace is a naked
wing lifting us into premonition
worked down to a sigh & plea.

—Yusef Komunyakaa

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Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 8:34 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Quick, Now, Always

We would like to linger here even longer,
especially when the sun lays gold
over lawns, some so white-fenced, idyllic, and sexy
they obsess us with what? — Ourselves? — That recurring
wilderness within? All night the rain
gently sucking leaves till morning. And here
are the flowers that put out our eyes. We should throw
our bodies onto the earth, just as we throw

them onto each other. Reyes and I walked long,
talking of love in a place with no people. We could feel
its absence burning within. First at twilight
in the cow boneyard. Then next morning
beside the birthing pen. The way the heifer licked
the wet calf up, then mooed

life into its bones. This, when nature is
only itself, when love is
sheer will. But still, the mother’s eyes bulging
toward the birth, and the mooing that goes down
into the glistening body, down into the soft hooves,
and down into the earth. This mooing
that goes on and on and will not stop, up to
the final sucking ass and carcass of death. This,

what we would, but lack. We choose instead
such sheer reprehensible and pansexual
delights, vogueing us beyond our shirted longing,
incomprehensible despite. Quiet fools we move
and are moved by movings until staring
through the glass eye of pleasure, we feel its palace

collapse. Oh how we long to feel that muscled
abandon for which there is no height,
an expanse whose taste is
salt, and whose hearing is all underwater,
all struggle, all breathing, one ocean, one
night. Everywhere now new leaves are ungluing, their green encased
with light. What we give changes us into something more
airy, something to last.

—Mark Irwin

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Published in: on February 27, 2010 at 11:39 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind

Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind.
Because your lover threw wild hands toward the sky
And the affrighted steed ran on alone,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Hoarse, booming drums of the regiment,
Little souls who thirst for fight,
These men were born to drill and die.
The unexplained glory flies above them,
Great is the battle-god, great, and his kingdom —
A field where a thousand corpses lie.

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

Swift blazing flag of the regiment,
Eagle with crest of red and gold,
These men were born to drill and die.
Point for them the virtue of slaughter,
Make plain to them the excellence of killing
And a field where a thousand corpses lie.

Mother whose heart hung humble as a
On the bright splendid shroud of your son,
Do not weep.
War is kind.

—Stephen Crane

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Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 4:58 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Lilies on an Ocean Wave

FROM Iron Coffins by Herbert A Werner

__________________

There are no roses on a sailor’s grave,

No lilies on an ocean wave.

The only tribute is the seagulls’ sweeps,

And the teardrops that a sweetheart weeps.

—German song

__________________

FOREWORD:

An Appreciation by an American Contemporary

IT IS UNUSUAL fore someone to have the opportunity, as I have, to write an introduction to a book by a member of a foreign and once enemy service whose personal history is so nearly a carbon copy of his own. Both of us were members of our naval academy classes of 1939; both of us finished submarine training and reported to our first submarines in 1941. Both of us served on board submarines throughout World War II, beginning in subordinate capacities and finally concluding the war in command of our own boats. Each of us has heard depth charges detonate alongside our boats, but not so successfully as others aimed at some of our good friends; and it is evident that depth charges sound surprisingly similar whether they be British, American, or Japanese. We have both participated in attacks on warships and merchantmen, and we have each seen great ships sink, sometimes gracefully and sometimes ignominiously, after the bottom-ripping burst of our warheads. The German submariners employed what I now recognize as nearly identical tactics to our own and both Werner and I have hurled futile imprecations upon our enemy for only doing his duty as well as he was able. So Herbert Werner and I have a close bond in common, even though I had never heard of him until I read his story. But granting all this, there are two traps to be avoided in any objective evaluation. The first is the trap of shared professionalism which may obscure important differences stemming from contrasting environment and objectives. The second is that the inevitable intrusion of feelings and attitudes from the war could, if unrecognized, influence the objective attitude we should seek today. A fine line of demarcation ensues, for we can admire the men who fought for Germany even as we must condemn Hitler and his Nazis. It is important for the proper appreciation of this book that this divergence of feelings be kept in mind and maintained in its proper place on both counts.

In his own preface, Werner tells why he felt impelled to write Iron Coffins. It has been an obligation of long standing, he says, and he wants to honor the thousands of his comrades who lie forever entombed in their steel graves at the bottom of the sea. The political passions of the war have no place in either his narrative or his professed objective; he does not indulge in invective against his enemies, even thought it is clear that he, like all of us, had his moments of vituperation. What he does say, however, merely by the telling of it, carries deep dramatic force, and the brutalization of all life touched by the war stands out in his book. It may sound strange, but ponder on this: the periods at sea—cramped in mold-ridden, diesel-hammering, oxygen-lacking, urine-reeking, excrement-laden, food-rotting, salt encrusted steel cockleshells, firing torpedoes in exultation, searching for convoys in frustration or receiving depth charges in stoic fear—these periods were the wholly admirable ones, regardless of who received the torpedoes or the depth charges, our side or theirs.

On the other hand, the times ashore were the times of degradation, and Werner does not spare us these. The picture of Germany in the spasm of defeat, infected with the moral destruction produced by war, appears ever more starkly as the ruin wrought by Hitler and his crew is played out to an inescapable and bitter end. Indeed, not the least contribution that Werner makes to the history of the second world-wide war is the personal picture of what war—total war—must inevitably mean to the decent men and women caught up in it.

None of this was totally unknown to the Allied side, even though we won the war and they lost it; but it was heightened in Germany. Through Werner we see lovely girls giving freely because men might soon die; we see civilians cowering in bunkers, afraid and hesitant to extend the hand of help to persons in worse condition than they; we see the profiteers—whatever the commodity, be it sex or food—and the hierarchy of superior staff echelons, protected from battles, having the best food and the prettiest girls, and giving desperate, unrealistic orders to an ever-dwindling cadre of fighting men.

But the war on the home front is not wnat this book is about. Its theme is a life of incredible hardships, terrifying warfare, absolutely fantastic determination, and unceasing dedication on the part of the German submariners. At the end of the book one can only survey their losses —fully ninety percent of those actively at sea (as compared to the usual count which included those in shore billets)—and one must lift one’s hat in tribute. One thing stands out clearly; toward the close of the war, when only two out of ten submarines leaving port were expected to return, they still went out in accordance with orders, and with high morale, knowing that most of them would not return.

It is the sad, terribly ironic truth, movingly faced by Werner, that toward the end most of them knew that their cause was lost. The heroism of the warrior, who is generally naïve, young, honorable and incorruptible, can never make up for a bad cause. Yet, in reviewing the post-war decades, it is manifest that this indomitability has been one of the assets upon which Germany has rebuilt her national honor.

Allied records for the submarine war in the Atlantic state that the turning point came about March 1943; the full weight of the escort aircraft carrier, improved radar, and new weapons were then thrown against the U-boats. Nowhere have I read a more dramatic account of how this all-out effort must have seemed to the men who were on the receiving end of it than in Werner’s story. The story is told without heroics. It can be fully appreciated only by another submariner of the war, but anyone can get the message. Take this passage: “Despite the dye marking our submergence, the Captain ordered an attack on the convoy before the escort could attack us. Chirping Asdic pings, bellowing detonations (of depth charges) and the grinding roar of a hundred engines provided grim background music for our assault.”

Tenacity was the strong point of these men, perhaps tenacity beyond logic or reasonable return for the risks taken—not that they individually had much choice in the matter—and the book ends, as it had to, on a note of demoralization and despair. But we have seen Werner grow into a tough-minded, cool, confident skipper. His was the last submarine to leave France during the retreat after the Allied invasion of 1944. Half a dozen predecessors died in the attempt, but he dared the gauntlet and brought his boat out safely with a load of people and equipment saved for a Germany which was too far gone to know or care. With his world cracking all around him, he was no longer the boy who went to sea five years before. He was now a man, although only twenty-five years old, able to see and record the breakdown all about him, note and yet stay above the danse macabre; recognize what had happened when the only reality left to him and his crew at the end was the reality of the leaky, obsolescent, damaged submarine to which they returned in relief from a shore leave too tragic to bear.

“Madness!” cries Werner from every page of the latter part of this book where he begins to question his country’s policies. He still records his amorous affairs between patrols, but it is worthy of remark that as the danse macabre became worse, the amours became less important to him. It was not that there was greater reticence, nor that the demands of a young fighting man were any the less compelling. He was simply drained far more than he is able to tell, drained soul and body, nearing the limit of his life-force. There was no more Germany as he had known it—it had vanished long before, something he had begun to understand when his father was imprisoned for befriending a Jewish girl. There was no more German Navy; that part of it, the sea-going part, which had held value for him was all destroyed. Only a gargoyle remained, a façade around headquarters by day, drinking and womanizing at night.

“Madness!” cries Werner, and it was madness. But there were heroes, too, who deserve admiration even though their cause was wrong and, therefore, their sacrifice was worthless. No one can fault the warrior who believes in his country so strongly that he dies for it.

This ought to permit these brave spirits to lie in peace, secure in the world’s regard for them and their memory. Madness though it was, these were the flower of young German manhood, unfortunately—but not to thek own discredit—early imbued with a warped ideal of how to achieve German destiny. They ought not to bear too harsh criticism, considering that the Treaty of Versailles is now hardly considered an ideal document. Furthermore, they were as a group unsullied by the cancer which afflicted the leading body politic. Because thek leaders told them so, they believed that if they fought desperately, they might save their country from the disaster plainly grinding in from every side. They expected death, and most of them found it; but they fought hard all the same, and they carpeted the ocean floor with thek bodies.

Edward L. Beach

Captain, U. S. Navy (Ret.)

U. S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island

15 February, 1969

__________________

INTRODUCTION

THIS BOOK, which tells of my personal experiences in the German U-boat Force in World War II, fulfills an obligation of long standing. Since the end of that destructive war, the role of the U-boat Force has at times been distorted and underestimated, even by military historians who should have known better. Because I was one of the few U-boat commanders who fought through most of the war and who managed to survive, I felt it was my duty to my fallen comrades to set the record straight. Very much to the point, duty was the first and last word in the lexicon of the U-boat men; and, remarks to the contrary notwithstanding, we did our duty with a correct gallantry unsurpassed in any branch of service on either side. We were soldiers and patriots, no more and no less, and in our dedication to our lost cause we died in appalling numbers. But the great tragedy of the U-boat Force was not merely that so many good men perished; it was also that so many of our lives were squandered on inadequate equipment and by the unconscionable policies of U-boat Headquarters.

In retrospect, the crucial importance of the U-boat Force is unmistakably clear. Whether or not Germany could have won the war, she was certain to lose it if the gigantic production of American factories reached England in sufficient quantity. On this proposition the lines were drawn for the epic “Battle of the Atlantic,” in which the U-boats served as the vanguards of Germany’s defense. No less an authority than Winston Churchill declared, “The battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea, or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome, and amid all other cares we viewed its changing fortunes day by day with apprehension.” It is significant that Churchill, who knew all too well the ravages of the Luftwaffe and of Germany’s V-l and V-2 rockets, also wrote: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.” As viewed from the other side, Germany’s fortunes in the war closely paralleled the rise and fall of the U-boat Force. The connection grew ever more obvious to me each time I came ashore after a long patrol.

The outbreak of hostilities in September 1939 surprised the German Navy; the U-boat Force in particular was caught fully unprepared. This state of affairs was dictated by a treaty, entered into between Germany and Great Britain in 1935, which limited German naval strength to 35 per cent of Britain’s in order to maintain the tenuous balance of power that existed at the time. Germany in 1939 had just 57 commissioned U-boats, of which 52 were of small displacement and capable of only short coastal missions. The other five U-boats were larger craft designed for long-range patrols lasting eight weeks. Out of the total of 57, however, 18 U-boats were set aside for the training of new crews. Thus only 39 operational U-boats were available to take on the mighty British Navy, the huge British merchant fleet, the navies and merchant fleets of England’s Allies, and an inexhaustible number of neutral ships that sailed under contract to the Allies.

Nonetheless, the first year of the U-boat war was extremely rewarding for Germany. Though the Force lost 28 boats, it destroyed one British aircraft carrier, one battleship, five cruisers, three destroyers, two submarines and 438 merchant vessels totaling 2.3 million gross-weight tons. Moreover, in the summer of 1940, after the surrender of France, our U-boats were gradually relocated southward to French ports on the Bay of Biscay. This move shortened our routes to and from the Atlantic and signaled a new phase of the war at sea—the great battles of the convoys.

Simultaneously Admiral Karl Doenitz, Commander-in-Chief of the U-boat Force as of 1935, launched an ambitious program to construct the largest fleet of submersibles that the world had even seen. The most advanced U-boat of that time, Type VII, became the standard Atlantic U-boat; it had a displacement of 770 tons and a cruising range of 9,000 nautical miles. In the course of the war, 694 boats of this type were built and up-dated periodically with new improvements; they accounted for some 90 per cent of Allied shipping losses. In addition, more than 200 larger U-boats were constructed to lay mines, to transport critical war materials and, most important, to resupply the combat U-boats at sea with fuel oil, torpedoes, and provisions.

Great Britain soon felt the sting of this stepped-up building program. Unrestricted U-boat warfare against the North Atlantic convoy routes resulted in the destruction of 310,000 tons of shipping in one four-week period in the fall of 1940. Allied losses rose to 142 vessels totaling 815,000 tons in a two-month period in the spring of 1941, and a year and a half of U-boat warfare cost the Allies more than 700 ships totaling 3.4 million tons. Churchill wrote of England’s darkest hour: “The pressure grew increasingly, and our shipping losses were fearfully above our construction. . . . Meanwhile the new ‘wolf-pack’ tactics . . . were rigorously applied by the redoubtable Prien and other tip-top U-boat commanders.”

In May 1941, when I saw the first of my U-boat battles, our attacks on the shipping lanes were one-sided triumphs; Allied countermeasures—the use of radar, aircraft surveillance and new-type destroyers and convoy escorts— were still in their infancy and posed no serious threat to our raiders. This situation was not changed by the addition of 50 U.S. destroyers to the British fleet as part of the Anglo-American lend-lease agreement. By the end of 1941, our confident assumption of total victory seemed to lie within easy reach: Allied losses that year alone amounted to 750 merchant vessels totaling almost 3 million tons.

Shortly after the United States entered the war, the U-boats extended their activities to the American east coast and raided shipping there with devastating results. During the first six months of hostilities against the United States, our boats sank 495 vessels totaling 2.5 million tons. Besides patrolling our North Atlantic and Caribbean hunting grounds, U-boats prowled the South Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea, and a few even showed up in the Pacific. In 1942, the most successful year in U-boat history, more than 1,200 Allied ships—nearly 7 million tons—were sent to the bottom.

But March of 1943, which brought the U-boat war to the peak of success, also heralded disaster. That month the U-boat Force sank over 750,000 tons of Allied shipping—and suffered a sharp and puzzling increase in losses. This unexpected turn of events was the opening gun of a carefully prepared Allied counteroffensive. The Allies had developed many new weapons, including fast escort vessels, small aircraft carriers, and a much-improved radar device. They had produced and assembled great numbers of escorts, carrier-based attack aircraft, and long-range land-based bombers. Bringing all of these elements into conjunction in April, the Allies struck back with such overwhelming numerical and technical superiority that fully 40 per cent of our U-boat force was destroyed within a few weeks. The Allied counteroffensive permanently reversed the tide of battle. Almost overnight, the hunters had become the hunted, and through the rest of the war our boats were slaughtered at a fearful rate.

The U-boat Force tried desperately to counter the counteroffensive, but to no avail. In 1943, when I was Executive Officer of U-230, we were losing boats faster than we could replace them. By the summer of 1943, our toll of Allied shipping had fallen to a monthly average of 150,000 tons—this at a tune when the Allies’ shipbuilding capacity reached 1 million tons per month.

The plain fact of the matter was that the U-boat had become obsolete. Too long she had remained essentially a surface vessel that submerged only occasionally to remain unseen while launching an attack or escaping a pursuer. Headquarters did develop the Schnorkel, a device that permitted the U-boat to gape for air and recharge her batteries while staying submerged throughout her patrol. But the Schnorkel did not come into general use until March 1944, 10 fatal months after the Allied counteroffensive; and five more months passed before the life-preserving device was installed in all older U-boats. It was not until August 1944, when I sailed on my fifth U-boat, the second under my command, that a Schnorkel relieved me of the constant life-or-death game of surfacing for air, only to crash-dive minutes later before sophisticated attacks by Allied airplanes and destroyers. Moreover, the Schnorkel alone was far from an adequate answer to the Allied aircraft and hunter-killer groups. The U-boat was still dangerously slow and highly vulnerable in general, and deaf and defenseless in particular while using the Schnorkel.

The only real solution was a radically new U-boat. Several such types had been on German drawing boards for years: they were designed to sail submerged for hours at higher speeds than a destroyer, to shoot from a safe depth, and to carry twice as many torpedoes as the conventional U-boat. These underwater wonders were constantly promised to the Force. But they were not put into production until the collapse of the U-boat war, and very few of them were commissioned in time to see action.

So the U-boat Force fought with what it had and, in the last year of the war, it accomplished little but self-destruction. One by one, our crews sailed out obediently, even optimistically, on ludicrous missions that ended in death. The few veteran commanders still in action were decimated despite their experience in the arts of survival. New captains, even with veteran crews, stood virtually no chance of returning from their first patrols.

When hostilities finally ceased in May 1945, the ocean floor was littered with the wreckage of the U-boat war. Our boats had destroyed 2,882 merchant vessels totaling 14.4 million grossweight tons; in addition, U-boats had sunk 175 Allied warships and damaged 264 merchant ships totaling 1.9 million tons. In return, we had paid an incredible price. Our total of 1,150 commissioned U-boats met the following fate: 779 were sunk, two were captured, and the rest were either scuttled or surrendered as ordered at war’s end. Out of a total enlistment of 39,000 men, the U-boat Force lost 28,000 men killed and 5,000 taken prisoner. This represents 85 per cent casualties.

Yet even these figures do not reveal the full extent of the U-boat disaster. Since only 842 U-boats saw battle duty, and since 781 of these were lost, 93 per cent of the operational U-boat Force was wiped out. In concrete terms, the toll seems even more shocking. Our tremendous U-boat Force on the Atlantic Front was reduced to a mere 68 operational boats by the time that the Allies invaded France in June 1944, and only three of these boats were still afloat at war’s end. One of the three survivors was U-953, which I commanded as her last captain.

My account of the U-boat struggle was written with the aid of notes I took during the war, along with photographs and letters that I managed to save from the holocaust on the Continent and the disaster at sea. Though I relied heavily on memory, my recollections are still uncomfortably vivid and will remain so, I am afraid, until their pressure is lifted by my demise. In addition, I insured the proper sequence of events by referring to a brochure published by Heidenheimer Druckerei und Verlag GMBH, which lists the fate of every U-boat. All boats are referred to here by the actual U-number. The dates and hours of events are very close to correct and sometimes accurate to the minute. The radio messages, including signals sent by Headquarters as well as by U-boats, have been reconstructed with care. The three lengthy transmissions from Admiral Doenitz are exact translations.

No less authentic are certain startling episodes in the book—episodes which are little known or which have been long suppressed. More than a few American naval officers can attest to the fact that U.S. warships, including the destroyers Greer, Reuben James, and Kearney, made attacks on U-boats as early as the summer of 1941, thus waging an undeclared war on Germany. I have yet to see any published reference to a shocking order issued by U-boat Headquarters just before the Allied invasion of Normandy. It ordered the commanders of 15 U-boats to attack the vast invasion fleet and, after their torpedoes were spent, to destroy a ship by ramming—i.e., by committing suicide.

Every individual mentioned in the book was a real person. The two commanders under whom I was privileged to serve are called by their actual names. So are other U-boat captains and distinguished flotilla officers, many of whom I knew as friends. So, too, are my closest comrades in the battles at sea and the escapades in port; sadly, almost all of them are dead. To protect the living, I have changed a few names; it would have been less than gentlemanly to reveal women I knew who have long since become the faithful wives of other men. But this book belongs to my dead comrades, stricken down wholesale in the prime of youth. I hope it pays them the honor they deserve. If I have succeeded in handing down to the reader the ancient lesson that each generation seems to forget—that war is evil, that it murders men—then I consider this my most constructive deed.

January 1969

Herbert A. Werner

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Published in: on February 25, 2010 at 12:52 PM  Comments (2)  
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Little Porch at Night

Pull up a porch chair next to this chaise longue.
Tell me the empty dark will fill with voices
And talk to me before I end my song.

A summer night, and something has gone wrong
To rob the mild air of familiar faces.
Pull up a porch chair. Next to this chaise longue

A mother should be standing with her long
Hair tucked into a bun. Unwind those tresses
And talk to me before I end my song.

That vacant angle where a hammock hung
Adopts the whole moon in its loneliness.
Pull up a porch chair. Next to this chaise longue.

Summon the fireflies, matches struck and gone,
The Morse code of the stars who’ve lost their places,
And talk to me before I end my song,

For down there in the shallows should be strung
A taut line from a father to the sea he fishes.
Pull up a porch chair next to this chaise longue
And talk to me before I end my song.

—Gibbons Ruark

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Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 9:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Dark Encounter

FROM To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Something crushed the chicken wire around me. Metal ripped on metal and I fell to the ground and rolled as far as I could, floundering to escape my wire prison. From somewhere near by came scuffling, kicking sounds, sounds of shoes and flesh scraping dirt and roots. Someone rolled against me and I felt Jem. He was up like lightning and pulling me with him but, though my head and shoulders were free, I was so entangled we didn’t get very far.

We were nearly to the road when I felt Jem’s hand leave me, felt him jerk backwards to the ground. More scuffling, and there came a dull crunching sound and Jem screamed.

I ran in the direction of Jem’s scream and sank into a flabby male stomach. Its owner said, “Uff!” and tried to catch my arms, but they were tightly pinioned. His stomach was soft but his arms were like steel. He slowly squeezed the breath out of me. I could not move. Suddenly he was jerked backwards and flung on the ground, almost carrying me with him. I thought, Jem’s up.

One’s mind works very slowly at times. Stunned, I stood there dumbly. The scuffling noises were dying; someone wheezed and the night was still again.

Still but for a man breathing heavily, breathing heavily and staggering. I thought he went to the tree and leaned against it. He coughed violently, a sobbing, bone-shaking cough.

“Jem?”

There was no answer but the man’s heavy breathing.

“Jem?”

Jem didn’t answer.

The man began moving around, as if searching for something. I heard him groan and pull something heavy along the ground. It was slowly coming to me that there were now four people under the tree.

“Atticus…?”

The man was walking heavily and unsteadily toward the road.

I went to where I thought he had been and felt frantically along the ground, reaching out with my toes. Presently I touched someone.

“Jem?”

My toes touched trousers, a belt buckle, buttons, something I could not identify, a collar, and a face. A prickly stubble on the face told me it was not Jem’s. I smelled stale whiskey.

I made my way along in what I thought was the direction of the road. I was not sure, because I had been turned around so many times. But I found it and looked down to the street light. A man was passing under it. The man was walking with the staccato steps of someone carrying a load too heavy for him. He was going around the corner. He was carrying Jem. Jem’s arm was dangling crazily in front of him.

By the time I reached the corner the man was crossing our front yard. Light from our front door framed Atticus for an instant; he ran down the steps, and together, he and the man took Jem inside.

I was at the front door when they were going down the hall. Aunt Alexandra was running to meet me. “Call Dr. Reynolds!” Atticus’s voice came sharply from Jem’s room. “Where’s Scout?”

“Here she is,” Aunt Alexandra called, pulling me along with her to the telephone. She tugged at me anxiously. “I’m all right, Aunty,” I said, “you better call.”

She pulled the receiver from the hook and said, “Eula May, get Dr. Reynolds, quick!”

“Agnes, is your father home? Oh God, where is he? Please tell him to come over here as soon as he comes in. Please, it’s urgent!”

There was no need for Aunt Alexandra to identify herself, people in Maycomb knew each other’s voices.

Atticus came out of Jem’s room. The moment Aunt Alexandra broke the connection, Atticus took the receiver from her. He rattled the hook, then said, “Eula May, get me the sheriff, please.”

“Heck? Atticus Finch. Someone’s been after my children. Jem’s hurt. Between here and the schoolhouse. I can’t leave my boy. Run out there for me, please, and see if he’s still around. Doubt if you’ll find him now, but I’d like to see him if you do. Got to go now. Thanks, Heck.”

“Atticus, is Jem dead?”

“No, Scout. Look after her, sister,” he called, as he went down the hall.

Aunt Alexandra’s fingers trembled as she unwound the crushed fabric and wire from around me. “Are you all right, darling?” she asked over and over as she worked me free.

It was a relief to be out. My arms were beginning to tingle, and they were red with small hexagonal marks. I rubbed them, and they felt better.

“Aunty, is Jem dead?”

“No—no, darling, he’s unconscious. We won’t know how badly he’s hurt until Dr. Reynolds gets here. Jean Louise, what happened?”

“I don’t know.”

She left it at that. She brought me something to put on, and had I thought about it then, I would have never let her forget it: in her distraction, Aunty brought me my overalls. “Put these on, darling,” she said, handing me the garments she most despised.

She rushed back to Jem’s room, then came to me in the hall. She patted me vaguely, and went back to Jem’s room.

A car stopped in front of the house. I knew Dr. Reynolds’s step almost as well as my father’s. He had brought Jem and me into the world, had led us through every childhood disease known to man including the time Jem fell out of the treehouse, and he had never lost our friendship. Dr. Reynolds said if we had been boil-prone things would have been different, but we doubted it.

He came in the door and said, “Good Lord.” He walked toward me, said, “You’re still standing,” and changed his course. He knew every room in the house. He also knew that if I was in bad shape, so was Jem.

After ten forevers Dr. Reynolds returned. “Is Jem dead?” I asked.

“Far from it,” he said, squatting down to me. “He’s got a bump on the head just like yours, and a broken arm. Scout, look that way—no, don’t turn your head, roll your eyes. Now look over yonder. He’s got a bad break, so far as I can tell now it’s in the elbow. Like somebody tried to wring his arm off… Now look at me.”

“Then he’s not dead?”

“No-o!” Dr. Reynolds got to his feet. “We can’t do much tonight,” he said, “except try to make him as comfortable as we can. We’ll have to X-ray his arm—looks like he’ll be wearing his arm ‘way out by his side for a while. Don’t worry, though, he’ll be as good as new. Boys his age bounce.”

While he was talking, Dr. Reynolds had been looking keenly at me, lightly fingering the bump that was coming on my forehead. “You don’t feel broke anywhere, do you?”

Dr. Reynolds’s small joke made me smile. “Then you don’t think he’s dead, then?”

He put on his hat. “Now I may be wrong, of course, but I think he’s very alive. Shows all the symptoms of it. Go have a look at him, and when I come back we’ll get together and decide.”

Dr. Reynolds’s step was young and brisk. Mr. Heck Tate’s was not. His heavy boots punished the porch and he opened the door awkwardly, but he said the same thing Dr. Reynolds said when he came in. “You all right, Scout?” he added.

“Yes sir, I’m goin‘ in to see Jem. Atticus’n’them’s in there.”

“I’ll go with you,” said Mr. Tate.

Aunt Alexandra had shaded Jem’s reading light with a towel, and his room was dim. Jem was lying on his back. There was an ugly mark along one side of his face. His left arm lay out from his body; his elbow was bent slightly, but in the wrong direction. Jem was frowning.

“Jem…?”

Atticus spoke. “He can’t hear you, Scout, he’s out like a light. He was coming around, but Dr. Reynolds put him out again.”

“Yes sir.” I retreated. Jem’s room was large and square. Aunt Alexandra was sitting in a rocking-chair by the fireplace. The man who brought Jem in was standing in a corner, leaning against the wall. He was some countryman I did not know. He had probably been at the pageant, and was in the vicinity when it happened. He must have heard our screams and come running.

Atticus was standing by Jem’s bed.

Mr. Heck Tate stood in the doorway. His hat was in his hand, and a flashlight bulged from his pants pocket. He was in his working clothes.

“Come in, Heck,” said Atticus. “Did you find anything? I can’t conceive of anyone low-down enough to do a thing like this, but I hope you found him.”

Mr. Tate sniffed. He glanced sharply at the man in the corner, nodded to him, then looked around the room—at Jem, at Aunt Alexandra, then at Atticus.

“Sit down, Mr. Finch,” he said pleasantly.

Atticus said, “Let’s all sit down. Have that chair, Heck. I’ll get another one from the livingroom.”

Mr. Tate sat in Jem’s desk chair. He waited until Atticus returned and settled himself. I wondered why Atticus had not brought a chair for the man in the corner, but Atticus knew the ways of country people far better than I. Some of his rural clients would park their long-eared steeds under the chinaberry trees in the back yard, and Atticus would often keep appointments on the back steps. This one was probably more comfortable where he was.

“Mr. Finch,” said Mr. Tate, “tell you what I found. I found a little girl’s dress—it’s out there in my car. That your dress, Scout?”

“Yes sir, if it’s a pink one with smockin‘,” I said. Mr. Tate was behaving as if he were on the witness stand. He liked to tell things his own way, untrammeled by state or defense, and sometimes it took him a while.

“I found some funny-looking pieces of muddy-colored cloth—”

“That’s m’costume, Mr. Tate.”

Mr. Tate ran his hands down his thighs. He rubbed his left arm and investigated Jem’s mantelpiece, then he seemed to be interested in the fireplace. His fingers sought his long nose.

“What is it, Heck?” said Atticus.

Mr. Tate found his neck and rubbed it. “Bob Ewell’s lyin‘ on the ground under that tree down yonder with a kitchen knife stuck up under his ribs. He’s dead, Mr. Finch.”

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Published in: on February 24, 2010 at 2:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Modern Greek for “Nightmare” Is “Ephialtes”

I think, what brought you to this pass?
Heroes lie thick, anonymous,

Blurred with honorable mention
In mass graves of fine intention,

And yet even now dreams yield
On their unequal battlefield

Betrayal’s still familiar face,
The name that nothing can erase,

Not even final victory.
Sleep has no sense of history:

Even now I lose the day,
Always look the other way,

While old treachery awaits
The heart’s warm springs, its hot gates.

—A. E. Stallings

[Ephialtes: the Greek who betrayed the Spartans to the Persians at Thermopylae]

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Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 7:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Obscurity

My dream was of writing into the afternoon, free of constraint, cleansed
To a schist-like immediacy. It was after a sickness, slight but troublesome,
From which I had returned to the world with a new violence
To my ideas. Foremost among them was the decision
To write, to be writing, and the notion that writing’s separateness
Was needed. That to be alone was preferable; not simply
Away from people, but to dwell in a singleness,
To explore it from the inside, no matter how repetitive or dim,
With the seriousness and dedication of a child whose world
Opens exponentially from inside an old refrigerator carton.

My second idea was that one’s life, when viewed in this way,
Was still-life, sharing more with canvases of the old masters,
And their radiant stasis, as though a hand were reaching
For a silver goblet, and would, as soon as we took
Our eyes away, raise it to a set of lips just outside
The frame. I wanted to return to the parts of myself,
And place them carefully in meaningful light. I
Wanted this arrangement to be studied yet human, static
Though in full possession of time, with the resonance
Of an inner rightness which had little to do with expediency.

Lastly, and it is no mistake that all of this occurred to me
As trilogy, my afternoons and their consequences would be an arrival
Through formal application at structures which were closer
To music than to statement, but avoided the self-conscious obliquity of art-
Prose, and above all avoided its mimicry of ideals and jaded exclusivity;
That it was the formality of doing this thing which was redeeming,
Devotional, good. Destinations, like glades in a forest, seemed, above all,
Rhythmically determined, where light might enter and seep back,
Drawing us out from beneath darkened canopies, where we talk
To ourselves, cutting paths, or rest like Tarzan and Jane.

The clarity, which, the more I wrote, seemed to usher itself in
In waves, and cause the objects about me to implode with
Their own sense of self, would, I could see, be mistaken
For melancholy, or worse, the abstract and wistful tone
Of the neo-romantic, a nostalgia softened by distance,
Borne across meadow and copse like the sound
Of hunting horns. Yes, there was a danger. As in any endeavor
Which skirts the precious, one’s critics should be listened to,
And indeed a bit of their uninvested acumen held up
By the writer himself, like a match struck in a cave.

But the writer, I told myself, would not be hampered
By too many considerations beyond the immediacy
Of his own calculus. After all, the half-completed poem,
Like the tesselated patterns — half revealed — on the floors
Of those Roman villas, is a kind of reference
By which one’s movement through time is substantiated
And given not only weight, but also a sense of the fanciful;
The former to mark and perpetuate, the latter to encourage
And propel. For even the writer, as cleansed and critical
As he must become, would not do away with his gods.

Thus invested, he would make promises for the good of no-one.
For as the world hurled itself into war and starved its children,
He would concentrate on the shape and dimension of his own mortality,
See it stretched before him, ethically, like an afternoon.
I charged myself with giving back to what I saw as
“The pillaged,” namely, my own spirit, whose windows stood broken
And gaping like a bakery in a war zone. I saw this
As a kind of reinvestment whose morality hinged upon the implicit
Danger of the operation. This was the most excruciating form
Of selflessness, that which would reconstruct the self.

I would need an idea which could stress the casual dependence
Of things in their arrived-at contexts and nothing more.
But that would at the same time not bury them beneath
The churchish requisites of the poem as it has come down to us,
A history of sorrow. I am not speaking of the so-called
Attempt at naturalness. In fact if anything I would highlight
Artifice, allow it to draw its own lines, to segregate the writing
From all the more quotidian marshallings that cause the days
To bridge and furrow, toneless in their hours,
Secular in their terrible waiting for something to conclude.

There were practical considerations, not the least of which was
How to make a living. I thought of the money I would need
To sustain a type of research based as it is on an avoidance of the facts,
And always shy of results, a kind of dinner conversation without the food.
It was like getting to know your wife after a long day apart,
The ambivalence you feel at having to give up once again
The storied inwardness, the whole history of silence. I watched her
Lifting packages, lining the shelves with provisions, how patiently
She culled the dying greens from the scullery bins, and I was
Tempted to say: “Of course none of this is for me . . .” For truly it wasn’t.

In the room I chose the walls are as quiet as silk.
The pressed butterfly distracts me from time. To look at the image
Of ending in the fanned wings as delicate as powder beneath their glass,
Almost in flight above the black velvet bed as though clocking the night,
Reminds me of my search for an idea which might draw beneath it
All order of experience; it left me even more scattered
Than I already was, for it was too much like the wind
Searching for something lost in the forest. Now I am content
Finding myself in a certain weather, rain say, to measure
The fold of limb-light, as though the old symbols still pertained.

For sometimes there is a strain of music broken by distance,
As though it had risen out of a valley, and followed the flank
Of a stone-clad hill to where a tree, its sole audience,
Stands — on the tree’s typical Jericho — training all its branches to the task
Of assembling it anew. Though the melody is distorted,
Fragmented by the acid breeze and asphyxiated bird song,
The lumbering of heavy guns — the world as usual taking no
Notice of the tree’s difficulty — it thinks it can still follow
The line of the violin, as it dips, and weaves, courting the half-forgotten
Melody, as though tracing the crisp belly of a leaf, lost, though still dear.

Though it is never too soon to admit that such models
Of apprehension, thrown up, as it were, by the correlative force
Of nature belong already to an older way of perceiving,
And so can be of little practical use in our present endeavor.
They are like the suit of clothes given to the prisoner
Upon his return to the so-called polite world. Of dubious quality,
And ill-fitting, their effect is more to exaggerate a difference
Than to promote any blending. So as he buys his first pack
Of cigarettes and stands at the bar with his first glass, he is marked
For what he is. He stands alone amidst a flurry of whispers.

—Martin Earl

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Published in: on February 22, 2010 at 10:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Memoirs of a Primrose

Always the mornings
were miracles of delight
the soil moist with dew

Believing beauty
our destiny and purpose
gave us our great strength

Cast aside all care
Live in the eternal now
like Debbie Reynolds

Do not go gentle
But do not go rough either
Be like me: flower

Elegance so plain
cannot be vain. Elegance,
like dew, is just true

Flowers in a vase
or strewn in mad profusion
across a meadow. Choose

Green grow the rushes
Green grow my leaves and grew so
even as I bloomed

Happy the flower
whose petals spread to April light
Happiest in May

I have loved beauty
more than I have loved myself
But I love me too

June’s thirty days
are eternity enow
Then we pay the price

Kudzu, mildew, wilt
The problem of evil casts
its shadows here too

Life’s secret is this
Live often, live well, avoid
those who pick flowers

Mud: remember it?
Where we begin, where we wind up
unphotogenic

Notoriously
noir, in a black nightie, Night
rises from her bed

Open!     Open wide
as irises receiving
particles of light

Pink has its place:
pink for ingenues, for pansies
not for a primrose

Quoth Cicero
O tempora!     O mores!
How fashions do change

Red is my color
So bold and yet so proper
Revlon’s Primrose Red

Scarlet O’Hara
wore red to the ball.     I wear
red everyday

Tissanes of phospate
take me back to infancy’s
sunlit nursery

Uniflower Inc.
where we neither toll nor spin
all the live-long day

Venus in Virgo
My astrologer predicts
spring sempiternal

What is winter when
one can be in Palm Springs at
the drop of a leaf

Xylem and phloem still
— excruciating pleasure! —
shiver my petals

Yes, youth is precious
but not more so than having
roots in the real world

Zen is so primrose
A breeze, a briefness, a burst
of rain.     Then     Amen

—Tom Disch

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Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 10:11 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Yes, they really can

FROM The Catcher In The Rye by J D Salinger

Except for a few pimpy-looking guys, and a few whory-looking blondes, the lobby was pretty empty. But you could hear the band playing in the Lavender Room, and so I went in there. It wasn’t very crowded, but they gave me a lousy table anyway—way in the back. I should’ve waved a buck under the head-waiter’s nose. In New York, boy, money really talks—I’m not kidding.

The band was putrid. Buddy Singer. Very brassy, but not good brassy—corny brassy. Also, there were very few people around my age in the place. In fact, nobody was around my age. They were mostly old, show-offy-looking guys with their dates. Except at the table right next to me. At the table right next to me, there were these three girls around thirty or so. The whole three of them were pretty ugly, and they all had on the kind of hats that you knew they didn’t really live in New York, but one of them, the blonde one, wasn’t too bad. She was sort of cute, the blonde one, and I started giving her the old eye a little bit, but just then the waiter came up for my order. I ordered a Scotch and soda, and told him not to mix it—I said it fast as hell, because if you hem and haw, they think you’re under twenty-one and won’t sell you any intoxicating liquor. I had trouble with him anyway, though. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said, “but do you have some verification of your age? Your driver’s license, perhaps?”

I gave him this very cold stare, like he’d insulted the hell out of me, and asked him, “Do I look like I’m under twenty-one?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we have our—”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I figured the hell with it. “Bring me a Coke.” He started to go away, but I called him back. “Can’tcha stick a little rum in it or something?” I asked him. I asked him very nicely and all. “I can’t sit in a corny place like this cold sober. Can’tcha stick a little rum in it or something?”

“I’m very sorry, sir. . .” he said, and beat it on me. I didn’t hold it against him, though. They lose their jobs if they get caught selling to a minor. I’m a goddam minor.

I started giving the three witches at the next table the eye again. That is, the blonde one. The other two were strictly from hunger. I didn’t do it crudely, though. I just gave all three of them this very cool glance and all. What they did, though, the three of them, when I did it, they started giggling like morons. They probably thought I was too young to give anybody the once-over. That annoyed hell out of me—you’d’ve thought I wanted to marry them or something. I should’ve given them the freeze, after they did that, but the trouble was, I really felt like dancing. I’m very fond of dancing, sometimes, and that was one of the times. So all of a sudden, I sort of leaned over and said, “Would any of you girls care to dance?” I didn’t ask them crudely or anything. Very suave, in fact. But God damn it, they thought that was a panic, too. They started giggling some more. I’m not kidding, they were three real morons. “C’mon,” I said. “I’ll dance with you one at a time. All right? How ’bout it? C’mon!” I really felt like dancing.

Finally, the blonde one got up to dance with me, because you could tell I was really talking to her, and we walked out to the dance floor. The other two grools nearly had hysterics when we did. I certainly must’ve been very hard up to even bother with any of them.

But it was worth it. The blonde was some dancer. She was one of the best dancers I ever danced with. I’m not kidding, some of these very stupid girls can really knock you out on a dance floor. You take a really smart girl, and half the time she’s trying to lead you around the dance floor, or else she’s such a lousy dancer, the best thing to do is stay at the table and just get drunk with her.

“You really can dance,” I told the blonde one. “You oughta be a pro. I mean it. I danced with a pro once, and you’re twice as good as she was. Did you ever hear of Marco and Miranda?”

“What?” she said. She wasn’t even listening to me. She was looking all around the place.

“I said did you ever hear of Marco and Miranda?”

“I don’t know. No. I don’t know.”

“Well, they’re dancers, she’s a dancer. She’s not too hot, though. She does everything she’s supposed to, but she’s not so hot anyway. You know when a girl’s really a terrific dancer?”

“Wudga say?” she said. She wasn’t listening to me, even. Her mind was wandering all over the place.

“I said do you know when a girl’s really a terrific dancer?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Well—where I have my hand on your back. If I think there isn’t anything underneath my hand–no can, no legs, no feet, no anything–then the girl’s really a terrific dancer.”

She wasn’t listening, though. So I ignored her for a while. We just danced. God, could that dopey girl dance. Buddy Singer and his stinking band was playing “Just One of Those Things” and even they couldn’t ruin it entirely. It’s a swell song. I didn’t try any trick stuff while we danced—I hate a guy that does a lot of show-off tricky stuff on the dance floor—but I was moving her around plenty, and she stayed with me. The funny thing is, I thought she was enjoying it, too, till all of a sudden she came out with this very dumb remark. “I and my girl friends saw Peter Lorre last night,” she said. “The movie actor. In person. He was buyin’ a newspaper. He’s cute.”

“You’re lucky,” I told her. “You’re really lucky. You know that?” She was really a moron. But what a dancer. I could hardly stop myself from sort of giving her a kiss on the top of her dopey head—you know—right where the part is, and all. She got sore when I did it.

“Hey! What’s the idea?”

“Nothing. No idea. You really can dance,” I said. “I have a kid sister that’s only in the goddam fourth grade. You’re about as good as she is, and she can dance better than anybody living or dead.”

“Watch your language, if you don’t mind.”

What a lady, boy. A queen, for Chrissake.

“Where you girls from?” I asked her.

She didn’t answer me, though. She was busy looking around for old Peter Lorre to show up, I guess.

“Where you girls from?” I asked her again.

“What?” she said.

“Where you girls from? Don’t answer if you don’t feel like it. I don’t want you to strain yourself.”

“Seattle, Washington,” she said. She was doing me a big favor to tell me.

“You’re a very good conversationalist,” I told her. “You know that?”

“What?”

I let it drop. It was over her head, anyway. “Do you feel like jitterbugging a little bit, if they play a fast one? Not corny jitterbug, not jump or anything—just nice and easy. Everybody’ll all sit down when they play a fast one, except the old guys and the fat guys, and we’ll have plenty of room. Okay?”

“It’s immaterial to me,” she said. “Hey—how old are you, anyhow?”

That annoyed me, for some reason. “Oh, Christ. Don’t spoil it,” I said. “I’m twelve, for Chrissake. I’m big for my age.”

“Listen. I toleja about that. I don’t like that type language,” she said. “If you’re gonna use that type language, I can go sit down with my girl friends, you know.”

I apologized like a madman, because the band was starting a fast one. She started jitterbugging with me—but just very nice and easy, not corny. She was really good. All you had to do was touch her. And when she turned around, her pretty little butt twitched so nice and all. She knocked me out. I mean it. I was half in love with her by the time we sat down. That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.

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Published in: on February 21, 2010 at 9:38 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Impoverished Heart

FROM The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

We were passing a collection of shacks and log cabins now, bleached white and warped by the weather. Sun-tortured shingles lay on the roofs like decks of water-soaked cards spread out to dry. The houses consisted of two square rooms joined together by a common floor and roof with a porch in between. As we passed we could look through to the fields beyond. I stopped the car at his excited command in front of a house set off from the rest.

“Is that a log cabin?”

It was an old cabin with its chinks filled with chalk-white clay, with bright new shingles patching its roof. Suddenly I was sorry that I had blundered down this road. I recognized the place as soon as I saw the group of children in stiff new overalls who played near a rickety fence.

“Yes, sir. It is a log cabin,” I said.

It was the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who had brought disgrace upon the black community. Several months before he had caused quite a bit of outrage up at the school, and now his name was never mentioned above a whisper. Even before that he had seldom come near the campus but had been well liked as a hard worker who took good care of his family’s needs, and as one who told the old stories with a sense of humor and a magic that made them come alive. He was also a good tenor singer, and sometimes when special white guests visited the school he was brought up along with the members of a country quartet to sing what the officials called “their primitive spirituals” when we assembled in the chapel on Sunday evenings. We were embarrassed by the earthy harmonies they sang, but since the visitors were awed we dared not laugh at the crude, high, plaintively animal sounds Jim Trueblood made as he led the quartet. That had all passed now with his disgrace, and what on the part of the school officials had been an attitude of contempt blunted by tolerance, had now become a contempt sharpened by hate. I didn’t understand in those pre-invisible days that their hate, and mine too, was charged with fear. How all of us at the college hated the black-belt people, the “peasants,” during those days! We were trying to lift them up and they, like Trueblood, did everything it seemed to pull us down.

“It appears quite old,” Mr. Norton said, looking across the bare, hard stretch of yard where two women dressed in new blue-and-white checked ginghams were washing clothes in an iron pot. The pot was soot-black and the feeble flames that licked its sides showed pale pink and bordered with black, like flames in mourning. Both women moved with the weary, full-fronted motions of far-gone pregnancy.

“It is, sir,” I said. “That one and the other two like it were built during slavery times.”

“You don’t say! I would never have believed that they were so enduring. Since slavery times!”

“That’s true, sir. And the white family that owned the land when it was a big plantation still lives in town.”

“Yes,” he said, “I know that many of the old families still survive. And individuals too, the human stock goes on, even though it degenerates. But these cabinsl” He seemed surprised and confounded.

“Do you suppose those women know anything about the age and history of the place? The older one looks as though she might.”

“I doubt it, sir. They — they don’t seem very bright.”

“Bright?” he said, removing his cigar. “You mean that they wouldn’t talk with me?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yes, sir. That’s it.”

“Why not?”

I didn’t want to explain. It made me feel ashamed, but he sensed that I knew something and pressed me.

“It’s not very nice, sir. But I don’t think those women would talk to us.”

“We can explain that we’re from the school. Surely they’ll talk then. You may tell them who I am.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, “but they hate us up at the school. They never come there . . .”

“What!”

“No, sir.”

“And those children along the fence down there?”

“They don’t either, sir.”

“But why?”

“I don’t really know, sir. Quite a few folks out this way don’t, though. I guess they’re too ignorant. They’re not interested.”

“But I can’t believe it.”

The children had stopped playing and now looked silently at the car, their arms behind their backs and their new over-sized overalls pulled tight over their little pot bellies as though they too were pregnant.

“What about their men folk?”

I hesitated. Why did he find this so strange?

“He hates us, sir,” I said.

“You say he; aren’t both the women married?”

I caught my breath. I’d made a mistake. “The old one is, sir,” I said reluctantly.

“What happened to the young woman’s husband?”

“She doesn’t have any — That is . . . I –”

“What is it, young man? Do you know these people?”

“Only a little, sir. There was some talk about them up on the campus a while back.”

“What talk?”

“Well, the young woman is the old woman’s daughter . . .”

“And?”

“Well, sir, they say . . . you see . . . I mean they say the daughter doesn’t have a husband.”

“Oh, I see. But that shouldn’t be so strange. I understand that your people — Never mind! Is that all?”

“Well, sir . . .”

“Yes, what else?”

“They say that her father did it.”

“What!”

“Yes, sir . . . that he gave her the baby.”

I heard the sharp intake of breath, like a toy balloon suddenly deflated. His face reddened. I was confused, feeling shame for the two women and fear that I had talked too much and offended his sensibilities.

“And did anyone from the school investigate this matter?” he asked at last.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“What was discovered?”

“That it was true — they say.”

“But how does he explain his doing such a — a — such a monstrous thing?”

He sat back in the seat, his hands grasping his knees, his knuckles bloodless. I looked away, down the heat-dazzling concrete of the highway. I wished we were back on the other side of the white line, heading back to the quiet green stretch of the campus.

“It is said that the man took both his wife and his daughter?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And that he is the father of both their children?”

“Yes, sir.”

“No, no, no!”

He sounded as though he were in great pain. I looked at him anxiously. What had happened? What had I said?

“Not that! No . . .” he said, with something like horror.

I saw the sun blaze upon the new blue overalls as the man appeared around the cabin. His shoes were tan and new and he moved easily over the hot earth. He was a small man and he covered the yard with a familiarity that would have allowed him to walk in the blackest darkness with the same certainty. He came and said something to the women as he fanned himself with a blue bandanna handkerchief. But they appeared to regard him sullenly, barely speaking, and hardly looking in his direction.

“Would that be the man?” Mr. Norton asked.

“Yes, sir. I think so.”

“Get out!” he cried. “I must talk with him.”

I was unable to move. I felt surprise and a dread and resentment of what he might say to Trueblood and his women, the questions he might ask. Why couldn’t he leave them alone!

“Hurry!”

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Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 10:30 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Channel

In time the fork my life took
as illness changed its course
will wander to the main stream
and there below the long waterfalls
and cataracts I will begin my rush
to the place I was going from the start.
I imagine looking back to see
the silted mass where a huge bend
holds sunlight in a net of evergreen
and the sky unable to bear its own
violet brilliance a moment longer.
Out of shadows where the channel
crumbles comes the raucous sound
a great blue heron makes when startled.
Scent of peppermint rides breezes
from the valley and I catch hints
of current beneath the surface
just as darkness unfurls.
There I imagine what was lost
coming together with what was gained
to pour itself at last into the sea.

—Floyd Skloot

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Published in: on February 19, 2010 at 9:34 PM  Comments (1)  
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The Treatment

FROM As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

✥❆✥MacGowan✥❆✥

It happened I am back of the prescription case, pouring up some chocolate sauce, when Jody comes back and says, “Say, Skeet, there’s a woman up front that wants to see the doctor and when I said What doctor you want to see, she said she wants to see the doctor that works here and when I said There aint any doctor works here, she just stood there, looking back this way.”

“What kind of a woman is it?” I says. “Tell her to go upstairs to Alford’s office.”

“Country woman,” he says.

“Send her to the courthouse,” I says. “Tell her all the doctors have gone to Memphis to a Barbers’ Convention.”

“All right,” he says, going away. “She looks pretty good for a country girl,” he says.

“Wait,” I says. He waited and I went and peeped through the crack. But I couldn’t tell nothing except she had a good leg against the light. “Is she young, you say?” I says.

“She looks like a pretty hot mamma, for a country girl,” he says.

“Take this,” I says, giving him the chocolate. I took off my apron and went up there. She looked pretty good. One of them black eyed ones that look like she’d as soon put a knife in you as not if you two-timed her. She looked pretty good. There wasn’t nobody else in the store; it was dinner time.

“What can I do for you?” I says.

“Are you the doctor?” she says.

“Sure,” I says. She quit looking at me and was kind of looking around.

“Can we go back yonder?” she says.

It was just a quarter past twelve, but I went and told Jody to kind of watch out and whistle if the old man come in sight, because he never got back before one.

“You better lay off of that,” Jody says. “He’ll fire your stern out of here so quick you cant wink.”

“He dont never get back before one,” I says. “You can see him go into the postoffice. You keep your eye peeled, now, and give me a whistle.”

“What you going to do?” he says.

“You keep your eye out. I’ll tell you later.”

“Aint you going to give me no seconds on it?” he says.

“What the hell do you think this is?” I says; “a studfarm? You watch out for him. I’m going into conference.”

So I go on to the back. I stopped at the glass and smoothed my hair, then I went behind the prescription case, where she was waiting. She is looking at the medicine cabinet, then she looks at me.

“Now, madam,” I says; “what is your trouble?”

“It’s the female trouble,” she says, watching me. “I got the money,” she says.

“Ah,” I says. “Have you got female troubles or do you want female troubles? If so, you come to the right doctor.” Them country people. Half the time they dont know what they want, and the balance of the time they cant tell it to you. The clock said twenty past twelve.

“No,” she says.

“No which?” I says.

“I aint had it,” she says. “That’s it.” She looked at me. “I got the money,” she says.

So I knew what she was talking about.

“Oh,” I says. “You got something in your belly you wish you didn’t have.” She looks at me. “You wish you had a little more or a little less, huh?”

“I got the money,” she says. “He said I could git something at the drugstore for hit,”

“Who said so?” I says.

“He did,” she says, looking at me.

“You dont want to call no names,” I says. “The one that put the acorn in your belly? He the one that told you?” She dont say nothing. “You aint married, are you?” I says. I never saw no ring. But Like as not, they aint heard yet out there that they use rings.

“I got the money,” she says. She showed it to me, tied up in her handkerchief: a ten spot.

“I’ll swear you have,” I says. “He give it to you?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Which one?” I says. She looks at me. “Which one of them give it to you?”

“It aint but one,” she says. She looks at me.

“Go on,” I says. She dont say nothing. The trouble about the cellar is, it aint but one way out and that’s back up the inside stairs. The clock says twenty-five to one. “A pretty girl like you,” I says.

She looks at me. She begins to tie the money back up in the handkerchief. “Excuse me a minute,” I says. I go around the prescription case. “Did you hear about that fellow sprained his ear?” I says. “After that he couldn’t even hear a belch.”

“You better get her out from back there before the old man comes,” Jody says.

“If you’ll stay up there in front where he pays you to stay, he wont catch nobody but me,” I says.

He goes on, slow, toward the front “What you doing to her, Skeet?” he says.

“I cant tell you,” I says. ‘It wouldn’t be ethical. You go on up there and watch.”

“Say, Skeet,” he says.

“Ah, go on,” I says. “I aint doing nothing but filling a prescription.”

“He may not do nothing about that woman back there, but if he finds you monkeying with that prescription case, he’ll kick your stern clean down them cellar stairs.”

“My stern has been kicked by bigger bastards than him,” I says. “Go back and watch out for him, now.”

So I come back. The clock said fifteen to one. She is tying the money in the handkerchief. “You aint the doctor,” she says.

“Sure I am,” I says. She watches me. “Is it because I look too young, or am I too handsome?” I says. “We used to have a bunch of old water-jointed doctors here,” I says; “Jefferson used to be a kind of Old Doctors’ Home for them. But business started falling off and folks stayed so well until one day they found out that the women wouldn’t never get sick at all. So they run all the old doctors out and got us young good-looking ones that the women would like and then the women begun to get sick again and so business picked up. They’re doing that all over the country. Hadn’t you heard about it? Maybe it’s because you aint never needed a doctor.”

“I need one now,” she says.

“And you come to the right one,” I says. “I already told you that.”

“Have you got something for it?” she says. “I got the money.”

“Well,” I says, “of course a doctor has to learn all sorts of things while he’s learning to roll calomel; he cant help himself. But I dont know about your trouble.”

“He told me I could get something. He told me I could get it at the drugstore.”

“Did he tell you the name of it?” I says. “You better go back and ask him.”

She quit looking at me, kind of turning the handkerchief in her hands. “I got to do something,” she says.

“How bad do you want to do something?” I says. She looks at me. “Of course, a doctor learns all sorts of things folks dont think he knows. But he aint supposed to tell all he knows. It’s against the law.”

Up front Jody says, “Skeet.”

“Excuse me a minute,” I says. I went up front. “Do you see him?” I says.

“Aint you done yet?” he says. “Maybe you better come up here and watch and let me do that consulting.”

“Maybe you’ll lay a egg,” I says. I come back. She is looking at me. “Of course you realise that I could be put in the penitentiary for doing what you want,” I says. “I would lose my license and then I’d have to go to work. You realise that?”

“I aint got but ten dollars,” she says. “I could bring the rest next month, maybe.”

“Pooh,” I says, “ten dollars? You see, I cant put no price on my knowledge and skill. Certainly not for no little paltry sawbuck.”

She looks at me. She dont even blink. “What you want, then?”

The clock said four to one. So I decided I better get her out. “You guess three times and then I’ll show you,” I says.

She dont even blink her eyes. ‘I got to do something,” she says. She looks behind her and around, then she looks toward the front. “Gimme the medicine first,” she says.

“You mean, you’re ready to right now?” I says. “Here?”

“Gimme the medicine first,” she says.

So I took a graduated glass and kind of turned my back to her and picked out a bottle that looked all right, because a man that would keep poison setting around in a unlabelled bottle ought to be in jail, anyway. It smelled like turpentine. I poured some into the glass and give it to her. She smelled it, looking at me across the glass.

“Hit smells like turpentine,” she says.

“Sure,” I says. “That’s just the beginning of the treatment. You come back at ten oclock tonight and I’ll give you the rest of it and perform the operation.”

“Operation?” she says.

“It wont hurt you. You’ve had the same operation before. Ever hear about the hair of the dog?”

She looks at me. “Will it work?” she says.

“Sure it’ll work. If you come back and get it.”

So she drunk whatever it was without batting a eye, and went out. I went up front.

“Didn’t you get it?” Jody says.

“Get what?” I says.

“Ah, come on,” he says. “I aint going to try to beat your time.”

“Oh, her,” I says. “She just wanted a little medicine. She’s got a bad case of dysentery and she’s a little ashamed about mentioning it with a stranger there.”

It was my night, anyway, so I helped the old bastard check up and I got his hat on him and got him out of the store by eight-thirty. I went as far as the corner with him and watched him until he passed under two street lamps and went on out of sight. Then I come back to the store and waited until nine-thirty and turned out the front lights and locked the door and left just one light burning at the back, and I went back and put some talcum powder into six capsules and land of cleared up the cellar and then I was all ready.

She come in just at ten, before the clock had done striking. I let her in and she come in, walking fast. I looked out the door, but there wasn’t nobody but a boy in overalls sitting on the curb. “You want something?” I says. He never said nothing, just looking at me. I locked the door and turned off the light and went on back. She was waiting. She didn’t look at me now.

“Where is it?” she said.

I gave her the box of capsules. She held the box in her hand, looking at the capsules.

“Are you sure it’ll work?” she says.

“Sure,” I says. “When you take the rest of the treatment.”

“Where do I take it?” she says.

“Down in the cellar,” I says.

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Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 4:12 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Light in Our Bodies

After supper the children go out to play.
It is a holy truth.
Notice I did not say, “After supper
we go out to play.”
We went out to play, as we walked

back and forth to school,
full of the light in our bodies —
which the adult world didn’t know
what to do with.
Having lost their own,
they became teachers or irrelevant

to us behind their newspapers.
My parents’ love
was as holy as hide-and-seek,
but I couldn’t play with it.
So I cleaned my plate and ran away,

and came to this place where every night
after supper, the children go outside….

—Dennis Trudell

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Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 3:05 PM  Leave a Comment  
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StarFather

Out of the debris of dying stars,
this rain of particles
that waters the waste with brightness…

The sea-wave of atoms hurrying home,
collapse of the giant,
unstable guest who cannot stay…

The sun’s heart reddens and expands,
his mighty aspiration is lasting,
as the shell of his substance
one day will be white with frost.

In the radiant field of Orion
great hordes of stars are forming,
just as we see every night,
fiery and faithful to the end.

Out of the cold and fleeing dust
that is never and always,
the silence and waste to come…

This arm, this hand,
my voice, your face, this love.

—John Haines

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Published in: on February 16, 2010 at 4:24 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Folk Tale

After a traditional Japanese story

He knows she must have been a bird,
the same white crane he saved,
returned to flight. And now she has returned to him.
As wife. At night, he brings his face
near hers to watch the unexpected sheen,
white on white, her skin against the pillow.
And when she slowly combs her tangled morning hair,
her lifted arms seem to him like wings.
Once he found a feather on the stair.

Her husband is to her the sea.
He tastes of salt, his unwashed hair
a net that holds an ancient, briny catch.
In sleep, she breathes him deep.
And flies. Again she sees the coast,
sees the way the sun breaks waves
to shards of purple, gold, and rose.
She sees the squares of planted rice
serene beneath a muted glaze.
She finds a perch within the darkness of the trees.

They love their simple life, their house.
A flowering branch. A lacquered box.
Life comes to life when juxtaposed.
Each meal they share seems an emblem of the past.
A bit of rosy fish curls shyly on a tray.
A boiled custard in a plain white cup
nearly overflows like the moon’s white light
inside a narrow room. They drink their tea
in somber bowls, neither green nor gray.
Like two old friends, they tell each other tales,
but never once their own —
the startled hunter, wedded to his prey,
the wounded bird, would-be wife . . .

But should a traveler someday pass
beyond their gate, the scene he’d see
could bring to mind a half-remembered song,
could bring to mind a Master’s inky wash
wherein a single tree, a stone, a stream
find a home within an emptiness.
The painting’s untold story feels like home.

—Margaret MacKinnon

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Published in: on February 14, 2010 at 6:13 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Toomey’s Diner

Sundays at dawn were whispers and silent
pissing on the inside of the privy bowl.
If belt buckles merely clicked, zippers
crept shut, and the heels of heavy shoes
only thudded together muffled in our hands,
mother slept on as we crept out the door.

Sunday mornings my face seemed to melt
in ripples of chrome circling high stools
at the bar of Toomey’s Diner. The air
inside was thick with breath and smokes
as I spun between my father and brother
waiting for our *flapjacks all around*.
I saw the soles of my feet turned upside
down in the stools’ silvery pedestals
and knew enough to spin without a squeak.

So this was the world outside. Red leather
to sit on, red formica edged in chrome
where my elbows fit, red menus studded
with paper clips. Signs said Special Today.
This was the stuff of weekday dreams. A small
jukebox at every table, rice to keep
the salt dry, toothpicks, a great pyramid
of cereal boxes hiding the cook.
Sunday was sizzling grease and apple juice
glowing pink, then blue in the sudden shift
of neon. Sunday laughter gave off such
heat that walls burst with sweat.

When the day came apart, I always had
the relative silence of knives and forks
on plates, the delicate lids of syrup holders
snapping shut, coffee slurped from steaming mugs,
coins on the counter, the sound of our bill
skewered by Toomey as we turned to leave.

—Floyd Skloot

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Published in: on February 13, 2010 at 12:55 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Summer Rain

My books I’d fain cast off, I cannot read,
‘Twixt every page my thoughts go stray at large
Down in the meadow, where is richer feed,
And will not mind to hit their proper targe.

Plutarch was good, and so was Homer too,
Our Shakespeare’s life were rich to live again,
What Plutarch read, that was not good nor true,
Nor Shakespeare’s books, unless his books were men.

Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough,
What care I for the Greeks or for Troy town,
If juster battles are enacted now
Between the ants upon this hummock’s crown?

Bid Homer wait till I the issue learn,
If red or black the gods will favor most,
Or yonder Ajax will the phalanx turn,
Struggling to heave some rock against the host.

Tell Shakespeare to attend some leisure hour,
For now I’ve business with this drop of dew,
And see you not, the clouds prepare a shower—
I’ll meet him shortly when the sky is blue.

This bed of herd’s grass and wild oats was spread
Last year with nicer skill than monarchs use.
A clover tuft is pillow for my head,
And violets quite overtop my shoes.

And now the cordial clouds have shut all in,
And gently swells the wind to say all’s well;
The scattered drops are falling fast and thin,
Some in the pool, some in the flower-bell.

I am well drenched upon my bed of oats;
But see that globe come rolling down its stem,
Now like a lonely planet there it floats,
And now it sinks into my garment’s hem.

Drip drip the trees for all the country round,
And richness rare distills from every bough;
The wind alone it is makes every sound,
Shaking down crystals on the leaves below.

For shame the sun will never show himself,
Who could not with his beams e’er melt me so;
My dripping locks–they would become an elf,
Who in a beaded coat does gayly go.

—Henry David Thoreau

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Published in: on February 12, 2010 at 1:42 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Country Summer

Now the rich cherry, whose sleek wood,
And top with silver petals traced
Like a strict box its gems encased,
Has spilt from out that cunning lid,
All in an innocent green round,
Those melting rubies which it hid;
With moss ripe-strawberry-encrusted,
So birds get half, and minds lapse merry
To taste that deep-red, lark’s-bite berry,
And blackcap bloom is yellow-dusted.

The wren that thieved it in the eaves
A trailer of the rose could catch
To her poor droopy sloven thatch,
And side by side with the wren’s brood—
O lovely time of beggar’s luck—
Opens the quaint and hairy bud;
And full and golden is the yield
Of cows that never have to house,
But all night nibble under boughs,
Or cool their sides in the moist field.

Into the rooms flow meadow airs,
The warm farm baking smell’s blown round.
Inside and out, and sky and ground
Are much the same; the wishing star,
Hesperus, kind and early born,
Is risen only finger-far;
All stars stand close in summer air,
And tremble, and look mild as amber;
When wicks are lighted in the chamber,
They are like stars which settled there.

Now straightening from the flowery hay,
Down the still light the mowers look,
Or turn, because their dreaming shook,
And they waked half to other days,
When left alone in the yellow stubble
The rusty-coated mare would graze.
Yet thick the lazy dreams are born,
Another thought can come to mind,
But like the shivering of the wind,
Morning and evening in the corn.

—Léonie Adams

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Published in: on February 11, 2010 at 3:39 PM  Comments (3)  
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Correspondences

In Nature’s temple living pillars rise,
And words are murmured none have understood,
And man must wander through a tangled wood
Of symbols watching him with friendly eyes.

As long-drawn echoes heard far-off and dim
Mingle to one deep sound and fade away;
Vast as the night and brilliant as the day,
Colour and sound and perfume speak to him.

Some perfumes are as fragrant as a child,
Sweet as the sound of hautboys, meadow-green;
Others, corrupted, rich, exultant, wild,

Have all the expansion of things infinite:
As amber, incense, musk, and benzoin,
Which sing the sense’s and the soul’s delight.

—Charles Baudelaire

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Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 11:31 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Letter

What is she writing? Watch her now,
How fast her fingers move !
How eagerly her youthful brow
Is bent in thought above !
Her long curls, drooping, shade the light,
She puts them quick aside,
Nor knows, that band of crystals bright,
Her hasty touch untied.
It slips adown her silken dress,
Falls glittering at her feet;
Unmarked it falls, for she no less
Pursues her labour sweet.

The very loveliest hour that shines,
Is in that deep blue sky;
The golden sun of June declines,
It has not caught her eye.
The cheerful lawn, and unclosed gate,
The white road, far away,
In vain for her light footsteps wait,
She comes not forth to-day.
There is an open door of glass
Close by that lady’s chair,
From thence, to slopes of mossy grass,
Descends a marble stair.

Tall plants of bright and spicy bloom
Around the threshold grow;
Their leaves and blossoms shade the room,
From that sun’s deepening glow.
Why does she not a moment glance
Between the clustering flowers,
And mark in heaven the radiant dance
Of evening’s rosy hours ?
O look again ! Still fixed her eye,
Unsmiling, earnest, still,
And fast her pen and fingers fly,
Urged by her eager will.

Her soul is in th’ absorbing task;
To whom, then, doth she write ?
Nay, watch her still more closely, ask
Her own eyes’ serious light;
Where do they turn, as now her pen
Hangs o’er th’ unfinished line ?
Whence fell the tearful gleam that then
Did in their dark spheres shine ?
The summer-parlour looks so dark,
When from that sky you turn,
And from th’ expanse of that green park,
You scarce may aught discern.

Yet o’er the piles of porcelain rare,
O’er flower-stand, couch, and vase,
Sloped, as if leaning on the air,
One picture meets the gaze.
‘Tis there she turns; you may not see
Distinct, what form defines
The clouded mass of mystery
Yon broad gold frame confines.
But look again; inured to shade
Your eyes now faintly trace
A stalwart form, a massive head,
A firm, determined face.

Black Spanish locks, a sunburnt cheek,
A brow high, broad, and white,
Where every furrow seems to speak
Of mind and moral might.
Is that her god ? I cannot tell;
Her eye a moment met
Th’ impending picture, then it fell
Darkened and dimmed and wet.
A moment more, her task is done,
And sealed the letter lies;
And now, towards the setting sun
She turns her tearful eyes.

Those tears flow over, wonder not,
For by the inscription, see
In what a strange and distant spot
Her heart of hearts must be !
Three seas and many a league of land
That letter must pass o’er,
E’er read by him to whose loved hand
‘Tis sent from England’s shore.
Remote colonial wilds detain
Her husband, loved though stern;
She, ‘mid that smiling English scene,
Weeps for his wished return.

—Charlotte Brontë

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Published in: on February 10, 2010 at 6:39 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Tombstones in the Starlight

I. The Minor Poet

His little trills and chirpings were his best.
No music like the nightingale’s was born
Within his throat; but he, too, laid his breast
Upon a thorn.

II. The Pretty Lady

She hated bleak and wintry things alone.
All that was warm and quick, she loved too well-
A light, a flame, a heart against her own;
It is forever bitter cold, in Hell.

III. The Very Rich Man

He’d have the best, and that was none too good;
No barrier could hold, before his terms.
He lies below, correct in cypress wood,
And entertains the most exclusive worms.

IV. The Fisherwoman

The man she had was kind and clean
And well enough for every day,
But, oh, dear friends, you should have seen
The one that got away!

V. The Crusader

Arrived in Heaven, when his sands were run,
He seized a quill, and sat him down to tell
The local press that something should be done
About that noisy nuisance, Gabriel.

VI. The Actress

Her name, cut clear upon this marble cross,
Shines, as it shone when she was still on earth;
While tenderly the mild, agreeable moss
Obscures the figures of her date of birth.

—Dorothy Parker

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Recited by the Poet Dorothy Parker

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Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 6:22 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Siren

In your think tank you’re Olympia,
all languid length and skin and two red roses
budding in the suds; or you’re unhappy, a
sea fury frozen in your fountain poses.
And then a fine rime settles on the water,
hides you almost, Susannah, soaped to gleaming,
but wise from birth to what the elders taught her,
that though the tongue be stone the spirit’s scheming
heat and action, craves to be
swimming with you into infinity —
as on those evenings when I hear you run
your bath and put your hair up in a bun
and sigh, and sink into your second home,
and then you call me from the other room.

—Jonathan Galassi

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Published in: on February 9, 2010 at 1:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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The Memories of John Sterling

FROM The Life Of John Sterling by Thomas Carlyle

The fields on which I first looked, and the sands which were marked by my earliest footsteps, are completely lost to my memory; and of those ancient walls among which I began to breathe, I retain no recollection more clear than the outlines of a cloud in a moonless sky. But of L—-, the village where I afterwards lived, I persuade myself that every line and hue is more deeply and accurately fixed than those of any spot I have since beheld, even though borne in upon the heart by the association of the strongest feelings.

My home was built upon the slope of a hill, with a little orchard stretching down before it, and a garden rising behind. At a considerable distance beyond and beneath the orchard, a rivulet flowed through meadows and turned a mill; while, above the garden, the summit of the hill was crowned by a few gray rocks, from which a yew-tree grew, solitary and bare. Extending at each side of the orchard, toward the brook, two scattered patches of cottages lay nestled among their gardens; and beyond this streamlet and the little mill and bridge, another slight eminence arose, divided into green fields, tufted and bordered with copsewood, and crested by a ruined castle, contemporary, as was said, with the Conquest. I know not whether these things in truth made up a prospect of much beauty. Since I was eight years old, I have never seen them; but I well know that no landscape I have since beheld, no picture of Claude or Salvator, gave me half the impression of living, heartfelt, perfect beauty which fills my mind when I think of that green valley, that sparkling rivulet, that broken fortress of dark antiquity, and that hill with its aged yew and breezy summit, from which I have so often looked over the broad stretch of verdure beneath it, and the country-town, and church-tower, silent and white beyond.

Thomas Carlyle

In that little town there was, and I believe is, a school where the elements of human knowledge were communicated to me, for some hours of every day, during a considerable time. The path to it lay across the rivulet and past the mill; from which point we could either journey through the fields below the old castle, and the wood which surrounded it, or along a road at the other side of the ruin, close to the gateway of which it passed. The former track led through two or three beautiful fields, the sylvan domain of the keep on one hand, and the brook on the other; while an oak or two, like giant warders advanced from the wood, broke the sunshine of the green with a soft and graceful shadow. How often, on my way to school, have I stopped beneath the tree to collect the fallen acorns; how often run down to the stream to pluck a branch of the hawthorn which hung over the water! The road which passed the castle joined, beyond these fields, the path which traversed them. It took, I well remember, a certain solemn and mysterious interest from the ruin. The shadow of the archway, the discolorizations of time on all the walls, the dimness of the little thicket which encircled it, the traditions of its immeasurable age, made St. Quentin’s Castle a wonderful and awful fabric in the imagination of a child; and long after I last saw its mouldering roughness, I never read of fortresses, or heights, or spectres, or banditti, without connecting them with the one ruin of my childhood.

It was close to this spot that one of the few adventures occurred which marked, in my mind, my boyish days with importance. When loitering beyond the castle, on the way to school, with a brother somewhat older than myself, who was uniformly my champion and protector, we espied a round sloe high up in the hedge-row. We determined to obtain it; and I do not remember whether both of us, or only my brother, climbed the tree. However, when the prize was all but reached,–and no alchemist ever looked more eagerly for the moment of projection which was to give him immortality and omnipotence,–a gruff voice startled us with an oath, and an order to desist; and I well recollect looking back, for long after, with terror to the vision of an old and ill-tempered farmer, armed with a bill-hook, and vowing our decapitation; nor did I subsequently remember without triumph the eloquence whereby alone, in my firm belief, my brother and myself had been rescued from instant death.

At the entrance of the little town stood an old gateway, with a pointed arch and decaying battlements. It gave admittance to the street which contained the church, and which terminated in another street, the principal one in the town of C—-. In this was situated the school to which I daily wended. I cannot now recall to mind the face of its good conductor, nor of any of his scholars; but I have before me a strong general image of the interior of his establishment. I remember the reverence with which I was wont to carry to his seat a well-thumbed duodecimo, the History of Greece by Oliver Goldsmith. I remember the mental agonies I endured in attempting to master the art and mystery of penmanship; a craft in which, alas, I remained too short a time under Mr. R—- to become as great a proficient as he made his other scholars, and which my awkwardness has prevented me from attaining in any considerable perfection under my various subsequent pedagogues. But that which has left behind it a brilliant trait of light was the exhibition of what are called ‘Christmas pieces;’ things unknown in aristocratic seminaries, but constantly used at the comparatively humble academy which supplied the best knowledge of reading, writing, and arithmetic to be attained in that remote neighborhood.

The long desks covered from end to end with those painted masterpieces, the Life of Robinson Crusoe, the Hunting of Chevy-Chase, the History of Jack the Giant-Killer, and all the little eager faces and trembling hands bent over these, and filling them up with some choice quotation, sacred or profane;–no, the galleries of art, the theatrical exhibitions, the reviews and processions,–which are only not childish because they are practiced and admired by men instead of children,–all the pomps and vanities of great cities, have shown me no revelation of glory such as did that crowded school-room the week before the Christmas holidays. But these were the splendors of life. The truest and the strongest feelings do not connect themselves with any scenes of gorgeous and gaudy magnificence; they are bound up in the remembrances of home.

The narrow orchard, with its grove of old apple-trees against one of which I used to lean, and while I brandished a beanstalk, roar out with Fitzjames,–

‘Come one, come all; this rock shall fly From its firm base as soon as I!’–

while I was ready to squall at the sight of a cur, and run valorously away from a casually approaching cow; the field close beside it, where I rolled about in summer among the hay; the brook in which, despite of maid and mother, I waded by the hour; the garden where I sowed flower-seeds, and then turned up the ground again and planted potatoes, and then rooted out the potatoes to insert acorns and apple-pips, and at last, as may be supposed, reaped neither roses, nor potatoes, nor oak-trees, nor apples; the grass-plots on which I played among those with whom I never can play nor work again: all these are places and employments,–and, alas, playmates,–such as, if it were worth while to weep at all, it would be worth weeping that I enjoy no longer.

I remember the house where I first grew familiar with peacocks; and the mill-stream into which I once fell; and the religious awe wherewith I heard, in the warm twilight, the psalm-singing around the house of the Methodist miller; and the door-post against which I discharged my brazen artillery; I remember the window by which I sat while my mother taught me French; and the patch of garden which I dug for– But her name is best left blank; it was indeed writ in water. These recollections are to me like the wealth of a departed friend, a mournful treasure. But the public has heard enough of them; to it they are worthless: they are a coin which only circulates at its true value between the different periods of an individual’s existence, and good for nothing but to keep up a commerce between boyhood and manhood. I have for years looked forward to the possibility of visiting L—-; but I am told that it is a changed village; and not only has man been at work, but the old yew on the hill has fallen, and scarcely a low stump remains of the tree which I delighted in childhood to think might have furnished bows for the Norman archers.

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Published in: on February 7, 2010 at 10:46 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Claim

Even through the days as a believer
doubt would shadow the distant light
over the valley deep in itself
the voices that rang clear of it
never lingered
and long before I left
I had already gone

each time I turned away
it all stepped into that water
where it would seem to be the same
almost the same
and the heart would sink at the sight of it
without knowing why
the same heart come again
once more expecting nothing
and caught by what was never there

—W. S. Merwin

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Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 4:08 PM  Comments (2)  
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Rusted Legacy

Imagine a city where nothing’s
forgiven    your deed adheres
to you like a scar, a tattoo    but almost everything’s
forgotten    deer flattened leaping a highway for food
the precise reason for the shaving of the confused girl’s head
the small boys’ punishing of the frogs
— a city memory-starved but intent on retributions
Imagine the architecture    the governance
the men and the women in power
— tell me if it is not true you still
live in that city.

Imagine a city partitioned    divorced from its hills
where temples and telescopes used to probe the stormy codices
a city brailling through fog
thicket and twisted wire
into dark’s velvet dialectic
sewers which are also rivers
art’s unchartered aquifers    the springhead
sprung open in civic gardens left unlocked at night
I finger the glass beads I strung and wore
under the pines while the arrests were going on
(transfixed from neck to groin I wanted to save what I could)
They brought trays with little glasses of cold water
into the dark park    a final village gesture
before the villages were gutted.
They were trying to save what they could
— tell me if this is not the same city.

I have forced myself to come back like a daughter
required to put her mother’s house in order
whose hands need terrible gloves to handle
the medicinals    the disease packed in those linens
Accomplished criminal I’ve been but
can I accomplish justice here? Tear the old wedding sheet
into cleaning rags? Faithless daughter
like stone    but with water pleating across
Let water be water let stone be stone
Tell me is this the same city.

This I — must she, must she lie scabbed with rust
crammed with memory in a place
of little anecdotes    no one left
to go around gathering the full dissident story?
Rusting her hands and shoulders stone her lips
yet leaching down from her eyesockets tears
— for one self only? each encysts a city.

1997

—Adrienne Rich

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Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 11:54 AM  Leave a Comment  
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For My Lover, Returning To His Wife

She is all there.
She was melted carefully down for you
and cast up from your childhood,
cast up from your one hundred favorite aggies.

She has always been there, my darling.
She is, in fact, exquisite.
Fireworks in the dull middle of February
and as real as a cast-iron pot.

Let’s face it, I have been momentary.
vA luxury. A bright red sloop in the harbor.
My hair rising like smoke from the car window.
Littleneck clams out of season.

She is more than that. She is your have to have,
has grown you your practical your tropical growth.
This is not an experiment. She is all harmony.
She sees to oars and oarlocks for the dinghy,

has placed wild flowers at the window at breakfast,
sat by the potter’s wheel at midday,
set forth three children under the moon,
three cherubs drawn by Michelangelo,

done this with her legs spread out
in the terrible months in the chapel.
If you glance up, the children are there
like delicate balloons resting on the ceiling.

She has also carried each one down the hall
after supper, their heads privately bent,
two legs protesting, person to person,
her face flushed with a song and their little sleep.

I give you back your heart.
I give you permission—

for the fuse inside her, throbbing
angrily in the dirt, for the bitch in her
and the burying of her wound—
for the burying of her small red wound alive—

for the pale flickering flare under her ribs,
for the drunken sailor who waits in her left pulse,
for the mother’s knee, for the stocking,
for the garter belt, for the call—

the curious call
when you will burrow in arms and breasts
and tug at the orange ribbon in her hair
and answer the call, the curious call.

She is so naked and singular
She is the sum of yourself and your dream.
Climb her like a monument, step after step.
She is solid.

As for me, I am a watercolor.
I wash off.

—Anne Sexton

Recited by the Poet Anne Sexton

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Sexton, Anne (1928–74), major American poet, whose book Transformations (1971) was one of the most significant ‘subversive’ adaptations of the Grimms’ tales from a woman’s perspective.

Sexton was born Anne Grey Harvey into an upper‐middle‐class family in Newton, Massachusetts; after attending a Boston finishing school, she eloped with Alfred Muller Sexton and worked for a time as a model.

In the early 1950s, during which time she gave birth to her two daughters, she had a series of mental breakdowns and was advised by her psychiatrist, Dr Martin Orne, to write poetry as a form of therapy. Consequently, Sexton began taking courses in John Holme’s poetry workshop at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and her talent was immediately recognized. She received a scholarship in 1958 to the Antioch Writers’ Conference, and later that year she was accepted into Robert Lowell’s graduate writing seminar at Boston University, where she met and became friends with Sylvia Plath, Maxine Kumin, and George Starbuck.

In 1960 she published her first important collection of poetry, To Bedlam and Part Way Back, and she also began teaching poetry at Harvard and Radcliffe. Throughout the 1960s Sexton won numerous prizes and published several collections of poetry, but she also suffered from severe depressions, attempted suicide, and was hospitalized on occasion.

She won the Pulitzer Prize for Live or Die in 1967, and she taught at Boston University, worked at the American Place Theatre, and conducted poetry workshops in her home. However, she continued to feel disturbed and tried to commit suicide again in 1970, the year before she published Transformations, which was performed in an operatic adaptation in Minneapolis in 1973. This was also the year in which she divorced her husband and was hospitalized at the McLean’s Hospital. The following year she took her life in the garage of her home by carbon monoxide poisoning.

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Image by Edward Hopper
Published in: on February 4, 2010 at 7:54 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Boy in the Rain

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept

—W H Auden

FROM The Shield of Achilles

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Published in: on February 4, 2010 at 6:45 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Bengal the Eternal

FROM Glimpses of Bengal by Rabindranath Tagore

SHELIDAH

24th June 1894

I have been only four days here, but, having lost count of the hours, it seems such a long while, I feel that if I were to return to Calcutta to-day I should find much of it changed—as if I alone had been standing still outside the current of time, unconscious of the gradually changing position of the rest of the world.

The fact is that here, away from Calcutta, I live in my own inner world, where the clocks do not keep ordinary time; where duration is measured only by the intensity of the feelings; where, as the outside world does not count the minutes, moments change into hours and hours into moments. So it seems to me that the subdivisions of time and space are only mental illusions. Every atom is immeasurable and every moment infinite.

There is a Persian story which I was greatly taken with when I read it as a boy—I think I understood, even then, something of the underlying idea, though I was a mere child. To show the illusory character of time, a faquir put some magic water into a tub and asked the King to take a dip. The King no sooner dipped his head in than he found himself in a strange country by the sea, where he spent a good long time going through a variety of happenings and doings. He married, had children, his wife and children died, he lost all his wealth, and as he writhed under his sufferings he suddenly found himself back in the room, surrounded by his courtiers. On his proceeding to revile the faquir for his misfortunes, they said: “But, Sire, you have only just dipped your head in, and raised it out of the water!”

The whole of our life with its pleasures and pains is in the same way enclosed in one moment of time. However long or intense we may feel it to be while it lasts, as soon as we have finished our dip in the tub of the world, we shall find how like a slight, momentary dream the whole thing has been….

SHELIDAH,

9th August 1894.

I saw a dead bird floating down the current to-day. The history of its death may easily be divined. It had a nest in some mango tree at the edge of a village. It returned home in the evening, nestling there against soft-feathered companions, and resting a wearied little body in sleep. All of a sudden, in the night, the mighty Padma tossed slightly in her bed, and the earth was swept away from the roots of the mango tree. The little creature bereft of its nest awoke just for a moment before it went to sleep again for ever.

When I am in the presence of the awful mystery of all-destructive Nature, the difference between myself and the other living things seems trivial. In town, human society is to the fore and looms large; it is cruelly callous to the happiness and misery of other creatures as compared with its own.

In Europe, also, man is so complex and so dominant, that the animal is too merely an animal to him. To Indians the idea of the transmigration of the soul from animal to man, and man to animal, does not seem strange, and so from our scriptures pity for all sentient creatures has not been banished as a sentimental exaggeration.

When I am in close touch with Nature in the country, the Indian in me asserts itself and I cannot remain coldly indifferent to the abounding joy of life throbbing within the soft down-covered breast of a single tiny bird.

SHELIDAH,

10th August 1894.

Last night a rushing sound in the water awoke me—a sudden boisterous disturbance of the river current—probably the onslaught of a freshet: a thing that often happens at this season. One’s feet on the planking of the boat become aware of a variety of forces at work beneath it. Slight tremors, little rockings, gentle heaves, and sudden jerks, all keep me in touch with the pulse of the flowing stream.

There must have been some sudden excitement in the night, which sent the current racing away. I rose and sat by the window. A hazy kind of light made the turbulent river look madder than ever. The sky was spotted with clouds. The reflection of a great big star quivered on the waters in a long streak, like a burning gash of pain. Both banks were vague with the dimness of slumber, and between them was this wild, sleepless unrest, running and running regardless of consequences.

To watch a scene like this in the middle of the night makes one feel altogether a different person, and the daylight life an illusion. Then again, this morning, that midnight world faded away into some dreamland, and vanished into thin air. The two are so different, yet both are true for man.

The day-world seems to me like European Music—its concords and discords resolving into each other in a great progression of harmony; the night-world like Indian Music—pure, unfettered melody, grave and poignant. What if their contrast be so striking—both move us. This principle of opposites is at the very root of creation, which is divided between the rule of the King and the Queen; Night and Day; the One and the Varied; the Eternal and the Evolving.

We Indians are under the rule of Night. We are immersed in the Eternal, the One. Our melodies are to be sung alone, to oneself; they take us out of the everyday world into a solitude aloof. European Music is for the multitude and takes them along, dancing, through the ups and downs of the joys and sorrows of men.

Image: West Bengal, India

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The Shelidah Years of Rabindranath Tagore

The cultural heritage of Bengal goes back thousands of years but it was Tagore who opened the gateway of Bengali literature to the rest of the world. He travelled all over the world, bringing back fame and honour for his country

Out of eighty years of his entire life, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) spent only ten years in Shelidah, Kushtia. But that period played a significant role in his writings as well as in his life. Tagore wrote about this stage of his life in his wonderful letters to his niece Indira which were later published in 1912 as Chhinnapatra (Torn Leaves) and in English as Glimpses of Bengal. These letters are excellent images of Bengal and the Bengali life. Tagore told WB Yeats in 1918, that those very years were most productive for him, and made a new chapter in his life. He felt that the letters would present to Yeats, pictures and ideas of his surroundings more vividly and accurately than anything he had ever written.

Both the boat and the river became an integral part of his time in Shelidah and played a significant role in the letters. He wrote about the people of his estate and about their life. His time was spent writing copiously and reading avidly.

From the boats, he watched life on the banks. He looked on at ferries endlessly carrying villagers to and from the market; groups of boys raucously rolling logs along the bank; or a young village bride sailing away to another village, leaving behind her tearful family behind; or a feisty gypsy woman rebuking a high-handed police constable.

During his days in Shelidah he visited the Maharaja of Tripura several times and a friendship developed between him and the Maharaja. Tagore was instrumental in getting financial assistance from the Maharaja of Tripura for scientist Satyen Bose for completing his research works in Europe.

He was a restless and could not stay in one place for too long. He was sent to England several times but couldn’t stay there long enough to complete any formal education. He used to be homesick and longed to return to his country.

The family was quite surprised when Tagore agreed at his father’s persuasion to go to Shelidah in 1891 to look after the family estates. He was not known for this kind of a commitment. He however moved and stayed there for ten crucial years of his life. In Shelaidah and Shazadpur on the bank of the Padma he came in close contact with the common village people and learnt about their life and realized their pathos and misery. The revelation had an immense reflection on his work which is particularly evident in the post 1891 writings. Most of his finest short stories were written during this period.

The serene rural surrounding inspired him to write, and it was at this time, ‘The Postmaster’ was written. Written in 1891 ‘The Postmaster’ was among Tagore’s earliest stories; it was made into a film by Satyajit Ray in 1960-61. He published several poetry collections, notably Sonar Tari (The Golden Boat, 1894), and plays, notably Chitrangada (Chitra 1892;) during these years. Tagore wrote in the common language of the people. He achieved this quality during his stay in Sheliadah.

In time the boat became his life. To quote from Tagore: ‘They tied the boat in a stuffy place last night and drew down the curtains. The closeness woke me up and on top of it some people started to sing at about 1 or 2 in the morning. ‘How much longer will you sleep? Awake, awake beloved’ … The boatman stopped their singing but the words went on ringing in my ears ‘awake, awake, beloved!’ till I felt ill. Finally I raised the curtains and fell asleep towards dawn… I may be able to leave here after a fortnight but I am not yet certain.’

Most of his subjects here were Muslims. He introduced his own court. Every village had its own headman from among the villagers. Five heads made a court in Tagore’s estate. Final authority rested with Tagore. Thus he had established a welfare-based society in his estate. But he had no fascination for politics or power. During his time in Shelidah none of his subjects needed to go to the local police or the court. They led a safe and peaceful life under his protection
Most of his time, on the estate, Tagore was alone, except for his subjects. His family came to live with him in Shelidah in 1898 for a few years. Between 1891 and 1901 he wrote fifty nine short stories, set in both villages and towns of Bengal and in Calcutta. These deal with characters at every level of society.

Tagore came to love the Bengali countryside, most of all the Padma river. Tagore’s poems are virtually untranslatable, as are his more than 2,000 songs, which remain extremely popular among all classes of Bengalis.

In conclusion a few lines from one of Tagore’s poems written in Shelidah:

‘Whoever wishes to,
May sit in meditation
 with eyes closed
To know if the world be true or false.
I, meanwhile,
Shall sit with hungry eyes,
To see the world

While the light lasts.

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Published in: on February 4, 2010 at 6:17 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Song of Eternity in Time

ONCE, at night, in the manor wood
My Love and I long silent stood,
Amazed that any heavens could
Decree to part us, bitterly repining.
My Love, in aimless love and grief,
Reached forth and drew aside a leaf
That just above us played the thief
And stole our starlight that for us was shining.

A star that had remarked her pain
Shone straightway down that leafy lane,
And wrought his image, mirror-plain,
Within a tear that on her lash hung gleaming.
“Thus Time,” I cried, “is but a tear
Some one hath wept ‘twixt hope and fear,
Yet in his little lucent sphere
Our star of stars, Eternity, is beaming.”

—Sidney Lanier

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Sidney Lanier was born in Macon, Georgia, on February 3, 1842. His father, Robert Lanier, was a lawyer, and his mother, Mary Anderson, was linked through her Virginian ancestry to members of Virginia’s original House of Burgesses. In the poet’s youth in central Georgia, it was music that first captured his interest. He learned to play the violin, flute, piano, banjo and guitar.

His proclivity for music was an early sign of his budding genius. By age fourteen, Lanier was enrolled as a sophomore at Oglethorpe College, where he graduated at the top of his class. At eighteen, he was offered a tutorship at the college, a position he held until the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, Lanier was summoned to enlist in the Confederate Army. Serving alongside his brother, his battalion endured numerous battles, ending in his capture and imprisonment near Richmond, Virginia. Five months later, in February, 1865, he was released and permitted the long journey home. However, the unfavorable conditions of prison led Lanier to contract tuberculosis, which troubled him for the rest of his life.

Upon returning from the war, Lanier completed and soon published his first book: a novel detailing the gruesome hardships of war, titled Tiger Lilies. In 1867, he took the head position in a country academy in Prattville, Alabama. By December of the same year, he was married to Miss Mary Day, of Macon, and a month later he suffered his first hemorrhage in the lungs. In addition to treatments and growing exhaustion, Lanier’s artistic temperament was split by his love for both music and literature. After practicing law with his father for several years, he was urged to consider that profession, to which Lanier responded in a letter:

“My dear father, think how, for twenty years, through poverty, through pain, through weariness, through sickness, through the uncongenial atmosphere of a farcical college and of a bare army and then of an exacting business life…think how, in spite of all these depressing circumstances…these two figures of music and of poetry have steadily kept in my heart so that I could not banish them.”

In 1874, Lanier published his poem “Corn,” which earned him many admirers, one of whom, Bayard Taylor, commissioned the poet to write the cantata for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The next few years were poetically his most productive. He wrote “The Song of the Chattahoochee,” “A Song of Love,” and “The Marshes of Glynn,” his most celebrated poem. An offer to teach English literature brought him to Baltimore, Maryland, and in 1879, Lanier was appointed lecturer at Johns Hopkins University.

Having grown quite feeble by late 1880, he penned his last poem, “Sunrise,” and months later, on September 7, 1881, the poet died in Lynn, North Carolina, with his wife and family at his side, at the age of thirty-nine.

By his wife’s efforts following his death, Sidney Lanier’s poems were collected and published in a single volume, from which his readership grew. A fondness for the poet seems to exist most deeply in the South, where he is commemorated by Lake Lanier in central Georgia, and the Sidney Lanier Bridge, the state’s largest cable-stayed bridge, which opened in 2003 in Brunswick, Georgia.

Image: Lake Lanier, Georgia

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Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 5:31 PM  Comments (2)  
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Vessel

Because another day brings to light what another day brings,
the anchor gripped for a second then slipped
and nothing of any consequence happened.

Because the motion must be constant,
because the motion subsumes all that comes in contact,
the idea of the ship slides, and, its function forgotten,

the day is no longer a ship but a vessel,
the descent undramatic, slow enough
to go unnoticed by those unacquainted

with the art of the voyage, but this vessel is leaning,
that shore no harbor to hope for.

—Brian Henry

Image by Max Khokhlov

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Brian Henry has published three books of poetry– Astronaut (2000), American Incident (2002), and Graft (2003). His fourth book, Quarantine, won the 2003 Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America and will be publish by Ahsahta Press in 2006. He has been an editor of Verse since 1995, and he regularly writes poetry criticism for such publications as the TLS, Boston Review, and Jacket. He is working on a collection of critical essays on contemporary American poetry. He lives in Athens, Georgia with his family.

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Published in: on February 3, 2010 at 3:35 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Between Words

” The space we breathe is also called distance. . .”

— Linda Gregg

The trail to the ocean is steep.
The grass we walk through, high and wet.
I hear clear wind sighing
through slender pine, silence
between your words:
that place your loneliness lives
where I want to slip under,
move unbroken as stone.
I know where your pulse quickens
feels like water, too deep.
I know you think you might fold into yourself,
as stars do, where words might not matter.
This place you won’t go to let me hold you
is where I have gone.

—Karen Benke

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Karen Benke

Karen Benke received her M.A. in Writing from the University of San Francisco and her B.A. in English and Creative Writing from California State University, Chico. She is the author of Sister (Conflu:X Press, 2004), a chapbook of poetry. Her work is published in a number of literary magazines and anthologies, including Ploughshares, Hawaii Pacific Review, Runes, Poetry East, Tifert, Rockhurst Review, Clackamas Literary Review, HeartLodge, and Woman Prayers: Prayers by Women from Throughout History and Around the World (HarperCollins, 2003). She has received Individual and Community Artist Grants from the Marin Arts Council and was awarded writing residencies from Hedgebrook and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. A poet-teacher for 16 years with the California Poets in the Schools program, she holds a Masters Level certificate in Intuition Medicine from the Academy of Intuition Medicine, and is a writing guide for both adults and children. She lives in Mill Valley, California, with her husband, a screenwriter and arts attorney, and their eight year-old son.

Prior to reaching these lofty and well-deserved heights, Karen worked as a short-order cook, administrative assistant, receptionist, waitress, babysitter, bookseller, and kayak guide, all of which contributed immeasurably to the depth and honesty of her work.

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Published in: on February 1, 2010 at 4:30 PM  Leave a Comment  
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In The House

I am attracted by the dust
and silence of an upper shelf,
the strange air

that causes linoleum
to bulge in the cellar.
I know the walls come to hug

like grizzlies
if you stare at them too long,
and the kitchen knife

wants to be held.
I sense the aromas of sex,
the delicate, stale drift

of arguments and spite
no amount of cleaning will solve.
I know when love goes

it slips through all insulation,
forgets your name,
becomes sky.

—Stephen Dunn

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Dunn was born in Forest Hills, NY in 1939, and earned his BA in History from Hofstra University in 1962. He attended the New School 1964 to 1966 and received his Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in 1970. He’s the author of sixteen books, including Different Hours, which won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

Stephen Dunn

Since 1974 he has taught at Richard Stockton College of NJ, where he is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing. He’s also been a Visiting Professor at The University of Washington, NYU, Columbia, and The University of Michigan.

He has read his poetry at The Library of Congress, and at many universities and colleges throughout the country.

In addition to his books, his work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, the New Republic, the New Yorker, The Georgia Review, and the American Poetry Review, to name just a few.

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Image by George Tooker
Published in: on January 30, 2010 at 5:33 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Return

I often dream about the ocean
and would like to write
a long ode to water, because I live
on a drought stricken flood plain
next to a sea where a baked delta
opens between glittering sandstone cliffs
& the dunes and beaches make holiday resorts
seem like colonies in outer space.
Where are the green islands? Where are
the sticky hibiscus flowers,
the paddocks full of clover and grass,
the intricate mangrove swamps
& the mud that squelches between your toes?
Instead I am covered in salt —
the same brother you forgot
whose wounds were like rumours
of the rains’ failure
but who returns even so, just as the wet arrives
after weeks of dry storm lightning out to sea
& who stands in front of you
dressed in his flash city clothes
but suddenly shy, like a stranger embarrassed
by wet footprints and tears
& the sudden atmosphere of drama.

—John Forbes

Image: “Beach House” by Lois Gold

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Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 4:16 PM  Comments (2)  
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Their Rich and Imminent Destiny

FROM Intruder In The Dust by William Faulkner

IT WAS JUST NOON that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man. He was there, waiting. He was the first one, standing lounging trying to look occupied or at least innocent, under the shed in front of the closed blacksmith’s shop across the street from the jail where his uncle would be less likely to see him if or rather when he crossed the Square toward the postoffice for the eleven o’clock mail.

Because he knew Lucas Beauchamp too—as well that is as any white person knew him. Better than any maybe unless it was Carothers Edmonds on whose place Lucas lived seventeen miles from town, because he had eaten a meal in Lucas’ house. It was in the early winter four years ago; he had been only twelve then and it had happened this way: Edmonds was a friend of his uncle; they had been in school at the same time at the State University, where his uncle had gone after he came back from Harvard and Heidelberg to learn enough law to get himself chosen County Attorney, and the day before Edmonds had come in to town to see his uncle on some county business and had stayed the night with them and at supper that evening Edmonds had said to him:

“Come out home with me tomorrow and go rabbit hunting:” and then to his mother: “I’ll send him back in tomorrow afternoon. I’ll send a boy along with him while he’s out with his gun:” and then to him again: “He’s got a good dog.”

“He’s got a boy,” his uncle said and Edmonds said:

“Does his boy run rabbits too?” and his uncle said:

“We’ll promise he won’t interfere with yours.”

So the next morning he and Aleck Sander went home with Edmonds. It was cold that morning, the first winter cold-snap, the hedgerows were rimed and stiff with frost and the standing water in the roadside drainage ditches was skimmed with ice and even the edges of the running water in the Nine Mile branch glinted fragile and scintillant like fairy glass and from the first farmyard they passed and then again and again and again came the windless tang of woodsmoke and they could see in the back yards the black iron pots already steaming while women in the sunbonnets still of summer or men’s old felt hats and long men’s overcoats stoked wood under them and the men with croker sack aprons tied with wire over their overalls whetted knives or already moved about the pens where hogs grunted and squealed, not quite startled, not alarmed but just alerted as though sensing already even though only dimly their rich and imminent destiny; by nightfall the whole land would be hung with their spectral intact tallow colored empty carcasses immobilized by the heels in attitudes of frantic running as though full tilt at the center of the earth.

Image: “Old Barn” by Dawson Napps

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Published in: on January 26, 2010 at 3:12 PM  Leave a Comment  
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In Memory of Freud

The motion of water is a lie, we are what moves
over it, to Brindisi or Lisbon,
faces on a ferry looking

at the silver bangles
the water wears.
You missed the beginning when

we were water
and light. What you always believed
you knew is a mistranslation.

No one wants to say
what has really been said. Stand
at the edge of the cliff

to remember whales and water buffalo,
signet rings and stone. Walk out to the pier.
Take in the length

of our yearnings. We were never meant
to walk over water. We were
meant to immerse ourselves

and recall how to move. Go back
in time to beyond time: what were you
doing when minerals formed?

Go back some more and tell me this fossil
is a bone that was your hand.
Maybe you are missing the chapter on Plague

or the chapter that tells you not to
practice in public what you secretly anoint.
These are episodes in the story, not the whole

story, so think of love
and loss as twins that argue then make up
when the air parts

and produces a grammar
of solitude. If the symbol
of longing

is a wire that winds
the circumference of the earth,
you must get on your knees.

—Margot Schilpp

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MARGOT SCHILPP’s two books of poetry are The World’s Last Night(2001) and Laws of My Nature (2005), both published by Carnegie Mellon University Press. She is at work on a third collection, Civil Twilight, from which the poems here come. Her work has appeared widely in journals, including The Southern Review, LIT, Denver Quarterly, American Letters & Commentary, The Journal, The Gettysburg Review, and Hotel Amerika. She has been granted residencies at Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Fundacíon Valparaíso in Spain, as well as an Individual Artist Fellowship from the Connecticut Council on Culture and Tourism. She teaches at Southern Connecticut State University and at the Educational Center for the Arts, an arts high school in New Haven. She lives with her husband, Jeff Mock, and their daughters Paula and Leah.

It has often been said that there is nothing new under the sun, but Margot Schilpp takes that hurdle with ease by dressing her thoughts in fresh language, thus finding ways to present her surroundings in an original way. With the first poem from, The World’s Last Night, “Red-Winged Blackbird,” she instantly pulls us into her thought patterns and her way of viewing the world:

The barbed wire bends across the field
like a hair out of place, though not exactly.
The platinum sky is bleak and it weeps: gray
all day isn’t the only way of grieving.
Longing is a knife that blunts itself

on the dull muscle of the heart. . . .

Who pointed out the beautiful markings of birds?
Summer’s curtain draws across, red-winged
blackbirds weave into the fence, drag
a crimson thread across the eye.

Who can resist such writing—who would want to?

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Published in: on January 23, 2010 at 4:19 PM  Comments (2)  
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Waiting

‘Tis sweet to hear the watch dog’s honest bark
Bay deep-mouthed welcome as we draw near home;
’tis sweet to know there is an eye will mark
Our coming and look brighter when we come.

—Lord Byron

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Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 11:28 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Call of the Coal

Only the outcasts know
about Cain being in Eden,
Pennsylvania — the trees marked
with a tight slash like a beast’s scratch.
This is new country —
the gorge opening to a split-melon valley
cradled between mountains.
No river flows here, only an unnamed spring
that overflows onto skunk cabbage
and sumac. Wild onion and milkweed
slating unfurled fields
like stalks of Indian maize.

In Bethlehem valley
it’s summer, and miners
speckled with dust sway with moonshine.
Cain’s walking home in shifting light,
watching farmers harvest corn and rye,
wheat and timothy.
He once knew how to break earth,
sift seed from feed,
knew the long hours between dawn and dusk.
But in America, he knows only coal —
the sweet remains of his sacrifice —
the blood that calls him to earth
day after day;
as long as wheat sways in heaven,
he’ll follow the hollowed shafts
that swirl down into the unknown.

—Martin Taylor

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Published in: on January 22, 2010 at 10:07 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Sober Trees

Days I don’t drink I am aimless
in a crowded Sears in a small Iowa.

The lights are ridiculously bright
& frankly, I can’t get used to that.

I am mesmerized with the escalators
& not just the oblivious ups & downs

but by the illusion of not getting any-
where & continuously. I drink strategic-

ally half the time to be unsure of my natural
state of consciousness. It’s a pillow over

the face this sober thing. In its parking lot,
the vulture tow trucks look for souls

who left their headlights burning & charge
exorbitantly for a jump. I admit sympathy

for teen-age girls dropped off by their nervous
dads with baby sitting moola crammed in their

tiny pocketbooks. When I drink the stars appear
very impersonal so I know my twin exists

elsewhere & one of us knows the truth & has
conned the other into some sad isolation that

acts like a very loyal yo-yo. If I think about it,
the leaves cover trees less than half the year

but I think of the natural, sober state
of a tree as having leaves, not being bare.

—Bruce Cohen

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Image by George Tooker
Published in: on January 21, 2010 at 1:09 PM  Comments (2)  
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Fragments of a Forgotten War

"The Grey Man Dances" by George Grosz 1949, Grosz Collection

Read by the Poet Suji Kwock Kim

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Published in: on January 13, 2010 at 1:03 PM  Comments (2)  
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Absence

There are men and women huddled in rooms tonight
discussing dark matter, the non-stuff, the anti-
things which fill the universe. Imagine writing
that grant. Their children are of relatively
specific dimension, their houses occupy
nearly calculable space. Seven have dogs.
One dreams of playing in the British Open
nude. Yes, exactly like your father.
Of special interest is the woman in an office
in Princeton in a swivel chair looking
through a window at the pond where Einstein’s
said to have sat and thought about sailboats,
the little ones German children race on ponds.
She whispers Bolivia, a word she caught
on a map earlier and hasn’t been able to shake.
She has never been there. She has never left
the east, finds Bar Harbor exotic, thinks
of lobsters as the first wave of an alien invasion.
Together with a colleague she is trying to total
the mass of everything, the mental equivalent
of 27 clowns cramming into a 60s vintage Volvo.
What she likes about the word Bolivia
beside the sexual things it does to the tongue
is her feeling that anything you do there
might cause people to dance. She would like
to dance now. If most of what exists
can’t be seen or spread on toast
or wedged under a door in summer
when you want to fall asleep on the couch
to a wind that began somewhere near Topeka,
it’s acceptable to dance on a desk in an office
paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation
in an attempt to resurrect that once
good name. And even as she pictures herself
clearing and scaling the desk,
she is striding to the board and brushing
away a series of calculations
and replacing them with another, more
elegant run, adding at the end the curlicue
of infinity which normalizes the equation,
which makes her noodling momentarily right
with God and explains how a pinhole
could have the density of a universe, how half
of Jupiter could lie balled in your shoe.
Bolivia, she says, spinning. Bolivia,
she repeats, grabbing Bill Morrison
by the collar. Bolivia, he answers,
embracing the odd particulars of revelation,
kissing her hand in a burlesque of manners,
knowing it’s just made chalk beautiful,
aligned the glyphs of mass and spin
into a schematic of everything. Then briefly,
looking over his shoulder at the board,
she realizes in essence she’s trapped
nothing, not the stars but the black leading
between the light, the same absence
she feels at night when looking up a force
like wind rises through her body, leaving
no trace except the need to be surrounded
by anything more comforting than space.

—Bob Hicok

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Published in: on January 12, 2010 at 2:46 PM  Leave a Comment  
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The Song of the Old Mother

My Old Mother's Song by Michael De Munkacsy ca 1865

I RISE in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow.
And then I must scrub, and bake, and sweep,
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;
But the young lie long and dream in their bed
Of the matching of ribbons, the blue and the red,
And their day goes over in idleness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift up a tress.
While I must work, because I am old
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

—William Butler Yeats

Recited by the Poet William Butler Yeats

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Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 5:13 PM  Leave a Comment  
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A Story in Sand

This young woman deserves our attention. Her “performance” is guaranteed to move the coldest heart.

This video shows the winner of 2009’s “Ukraine’s Got Talent,” Kseniya Simonova, 24, drawing a series of pictures on an illuminated sand table showing how ordinary people were affected by the German invasion during World War II. Her talent, which admittedly is a strange one, is mesmerizing.

The images, projected onto a large screen, moved many in the audience to tears and she won the top prize of about $75,000.

She begins by creating a scene showing a couple sitting holding hands on a bench under a starry sky, but then warplanes appear and the happy scene is obliterated.

It is replaced by a woman’s face crying, but then a baby arrives and the woman smiles again. Once again war returns and Miss Simonova throws the sand into chaos from which a young woman’s face appears.

She quickly becomes an old widow, her face wrinkled and sad, before the image turns into a monument to an Unknown Soldier.

This outdoor scene becomes framed by a window as if the viewer is looking out on the monument from within a house.

In the final scene, a mother and child welcomes a young father home from the war.

The Great Patriotic War, as it is called in Ukraine , resulted in one in four of the population being killed with eight to 11 million deaths out of a population of 42 million.

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Published in: on January 8, 2010 at 5:58 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Quattrocento

Inside the bus the strangled air, stuck windows, and then,
hours later it seems, we are delivered from our confinement
into the stunned, barren streets of Borgo San Sepolcro,
noon and no one anywhere, July heat blistering the stones,
smoldering the dust of the bus station. In the one open trattoria,

the only bad food in Italy, and on the TV, pinned high to the wall
like a TV in a hospital room, the image of an American movie star,
and in Italian we can’t make out, we think we hear a word
that sounds like crash — maybe she’s dead, we think, though later
we’ll discover, in the yellowing pages of a tabloid curled

in a Roman gutter, that she’d only given birth. Outside,
we emerge into the afternoon’s conflagration to find the streets
still deserted as a blank-faced town in some science-fiction movie
from the fifties, a movie where something evil, unimaginable —
the Bomb, the Blob, the Thing — has vanished every sign of life.

But this is only Italy, siesta, months before jets scream
across the sky from Aviano to Belgrade, end of a century
in which we’ve managed, so far, not to blow the world away.
It could almost be the Quattrocento, so little seems changed
in the empty piazza, the same sunstruck stones, the same

shut eyes of the houses Piero saw every day, easy to imagine him
just a boy hidden in a shadowed corner of the blacksmith’s shop,
damp curls bent over his drawing, the black mare’s filigreed nostrils,
the way they flared when the metal seared her hoof. But here,
in the present, the museo’s open at three, though today

we’re the only customers. This is what we’ve come for,
our pilgrimage, stifling room giving way to stifling room
until at last here we are in his presence, hers,
Madonna della Misericordia, larger than life the Virgin
spreading her blue cloak — blue, color of mercy — to gather

the faithful inside, spreading her mercy everywhere, mercy enough
to envelop the whole world’s misery, the Quattrocento must have thought.
Now, again, what I feel — here, everywhere — in the street,
sipping an aperitif at a table under the winged maples, or watching
an evening’s passeggiata in the wine-gold summer light, walking

up the streets of Cortona, passing the houses with their little doors
for the plague dead, even strolling Venice’s watery glamour,
touching piles of Fortuny silk, purses heaped in the colors
of every spent dream — everywhere, I feel in my ear the breath of all
who have vanished. Everywhere, the terrible lost present of the past.

Who was that girl who posed for the Virgin, the one
with the placid, lovely face who wore a clock with its lining soft
as gray doves, a bunch of cabauchon rubies blooming at her throat?
The painter must have loved her, I think, he’s painted her everywhere,
in every Virgin’s face, in the sad face of Mary Magdalene, too,

though she’s even lovelier there, more alive — Virgin or Whore,
it doesn’t matter, she’s still his beautiful ideal. I think
he must have forgiven her, whatever she did to him, betrayal
braided into obsession’s silken chord. Who is the one kneeling
at the Virgin’s feet, a child, no more than thirteen, a rich girl

in a high-waisted, long-trained gown, the height of fashion?
Bareheaded, she’s still a virgin — so everyone thinks —
since long ago red-coated cardinals of the church decreed it:
because the angel appeared to Mary and whispered in her ear,
that delicate, pink shell — its labial folds and furls — must be the organ

through which the Christ Child was conceived; so woman’s ears,
in modesty, must be ever after covered. And even now
the girl’s father is out looking for a rich husband old enough
to tame her. Piero might have had her pose like that for hours, alone,
on her knees, on the cold stone, before he toppled her like a statue

falling in a garden, a flutter of goldfinches rising around them,
the scent of oranges and roses. And that man so sinister
behind the confraternity’s black hood? Perhaps he is watching the girl,
her ripening breasts. Perhaps the painter means for him to represent
every secret desire we hide behind the mask of three AM. It’s hard to say.

But I wonder what desires candled in their eyes, brush-fired, burned out
in their hearts? Perhaps the plague passed through them, a lingering storm
blackening their skins, swelling their tongues. Maybe some enemy,
some Guelph or Ghibelline, rode down on their valley, torching
the village, flaming the burnished fields. Their sorrows were certain.

As here, in the museum’s last room, in Piero’s Resurrection,
where he must have seen salvation, I see Christ bursting from the tomb
as a figure sufficient unto himself, the overpowering body, the eyes
cold, arrogant even, eyes that don’t see the soldiers asleep
at his feet, oblivious, ignorant of what has happened,

that the one they were sent to guard is free, that he will hide
his face from them, abandoning them to a future in which
they will surely die for allowing him to flee. One of the soldiers
is dreaming of his beloved, the way her thick black hair falls
across her face. What am I really mourning, time’s patina washing

over everything, the past’s weight heavier on my shoulders
than a plowman’s yoke in some muddy Quattrocento field? What is it,
the vanished before me, the long line of the lost, or my own
inexplicable vanishing, my fifty-third year? Outside,
in the heat-stroked afternoon, the past is still lying everywhere,

even in the dusty patch of ground next to the bus station,
where the town’s old men have clustered their fragile lawn chairs
to watch the passing scene. It’s too late or too hot for them, and so
we occupy their chairs, waiting for the last bus to shuffle us
back across the hills to Arrezzo. It could be the Quattrocento now,

the procession that crosses in front of us, the priest swirling the dust
with his long skirts, a few men in shabby suits, the best they have,
bearing the coffin, and behind them a scraggly group of mourners,
looking neither left nor right as they walk slowly forward.
It could be the Quattrocento, except for the intersection,

which has come to a standstill, the little cars thrumming, dazed,
impatient to be on their way, dreaming of home, soccer
or a game show on TV, maybe a meal, a glass of red wine, perhaps
even a kiss, a lover’s soft breath brushing an arm.
Even now, evening presses her cool cheek to the earth.

—Susan Wood

Image by Mark Slone
Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 2:21 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Questioning Wisdom and the Wisdom of Questioning

FROM Story of a Good Brahmin

Voltaire

On my travels I met an old Brahmin, a very wise man, of marked intellect and great learning. Furthermore, he was rich and, consequently, all the wiser; because, lacking nothing, he needed to deceive nobody. His household was very well managed by three handsome women who set themselves out to please him. When he was not amusing himself with his women, he passed the time in philosophizing. Near his house, which was beautifully decorated and had charming gardens attached, there lived a narrow-minded old Indian woman: she was a simpleton, and rather poor.

Said the Brahmin to me one day: “I wish I had never been born!” On my asking why, he answered: “I have been studying forty years, and that is forty years wasted. I teach others, and I myself am ignorant of everything. Such a state of affairs fills my soul with so much humiliation and disgust that my life is intolerable. I was born in Time, I live in Time, and yet I do not know what Time is. I am a point between two eternities, as our wise men say, and I have no conception of eternity. I am composed of matter: I think, but I have never been able to learn what produces my thought. I do not know whether or not my understanding is a simple faculty inside me, such as those of walking and digesting, and whether or not I think with my head as I grip with my hands. Not only is the cause of my thought unknown to me; the cause of my actions is equally a mystery. I do not know why I exist, and yet every day people ask me questions on all these points. I have to reply, and as I have nothing really worth saying I talk a great deal, and am ashamed of myself afterward for having talked.”

“It is worse still when I am asked if Brahma was born of Vishnu or if they are both eternal. God is my witness that I have not the remotest idea, and my ignorance shows itself in my replies. ‘Ah, Holy One,’ people say to me, ‘tell us why evil pervades the earth,’ I am in as great a difficulty as those who ask me this question. Sometimes I tell them that everything is as well as can be, but those who have been ruined and broken in the wars do not believe a word of it—and no more do I. I retire to my home stricken at my own curiosity and ignorance. I read our ancient books, and they double my darkness. I talk to my companions: some answer me that we must enjoy life and make game of mankind; others think they know a lot and lose themselves in a maze of wild ideas. Everything increases my anguish. I am ready sometimes to despair when I think that after all my seeking, I do not know whence I came, whither I go, what I am nor what I shall become.”

The good man’s condition really worried me. Nobody was more rational or more sincere than he. I perceived that his unhappiness increased in proportion as his understanding developed and his insight grew.

The same day I saw the old woman who lived near him. I asked her if she had ever been troubled by the thought that she was ignorant of the nature of her soul. She did not even understand my question. Never in all her life had she reflected for one single moment on one single point of all those which tormented the Brahmin. She believed with all her heart in the metamorphoses of Vishnu and, provided she could obtain a little Ganges water wherewith to wash herself, thought herself the happiest of women.

Struck with this mean creature’s happiness, I returned to my wretched philosopher. “Are you not ashamed,” said I, “ to be unhappy when at your very door there lives an old automaton who thinks about nothing, and yet lives contentedly?”

“You are right,” he replied. “I have told myself a hundred times that I should be happy if I were as brainless as my neighbor, and yet I do not desire such happiness.”

My Brahmin’s answer impressed me more than all the rest. I set to examining myself, and I saw that in truth I would not care to be happy at the price of being a simpleton.

I put the matter before some philosophers, and they were of my opinion. “Nevertheless,” said I, “there is a tremendous contradiction in this mode of thought, for, after all, the problem is … how to be happy. What does it matter whether one has brains or not? Further, those who are contented with their lot are certain of their contentment, whereas those who reason are not certain that they reason correctly. It is quite clear, therefore,” I continued, “that we must choose not to have common sense, however little common sense may contribute to our discomfort.” Everyone agreed with me, but I found nobody, notwithstanding, who was willing to accept the bargain of becoming a simpleton in order to become contented. From which I conclude that if we consider the question of happiness, we must consider still more the question of reason.

[If to question everything is the beginning of wisdom, should not one question the wisdom of questioning everything?]

Published in: on December 24, 2009 at 10:15 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Into that good night

In 1845 Heine first showed the symptoms of the crippling spinal disease that condemned him to a “mattress grave” for many years before his end. He viewed the approach of death calmly, refusing to be drawn into a display of religious zeal. “God will pardon me,” he said. “It’s his profession.” It was with less equanimity, however, that he viewed the possibility of leaving things unsaid. His last words were, “Write … write … pencil … paper.”

Published in: on December 24, 2009 at 8:06 AM  Leave a Comment  
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Galileo’s Inquisition

ON DEMAND OF THE INQUISITION, A RECANTATION—

June 22, 1633

GALILEO

I, Galileo Galilei, son of the late Vincenzio Galilei of Florence, aged 70 years, tried personally by this court, and kneeling before You, the most Eminent and Reverend Lord Cardinals, Inquisitors-General throughout the Christian Republic against heretical depravity, having before my eyes the Most Holy Gospels, and laying on them my own hands; I swear that I have always believed, I believe now, and with God’s help I will in future believe all which the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church doth hold, preach, and teach. But since I, after having been admonished by this Holy Office entirely to abandon the false opinion that the Sun was the centre of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth was not the centre of the same and that it moved, and that I was neither to hold, defend, nor teach in any manner whatever, either orally or in writing, the said false doctrine; and after having received a notification that the said doctrine is contrary to Holy Writ, I did write and cause to be printed a book in which I treat of the said already condemned doctrine, and bring forward arguments of much efficacy in its favour, without arriving at any solution: I have been judged guilty of heresy, that is, of having held and believed that the Sun is the centre of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth is not the centre of the same, and that it does move.

Nevertheless, wishing to remove from the minds of your Eminences and all faithful Christians this vehement suspicion reasonably conceived against me, I abjure with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce  him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be. I also swear and promise to adopt and observe entirely all the penances which have been or may be by this Holy Office imposed on me. And if I contravene any of these said promises, protests, or oaths, (which God forbid!) I submit myself to all the pains and penalties which by the Sacred Canons and other Decrees general and particular are against such offenders imposed and promulgated. So help me God and the Holy Gospels, which I touch with my own hands. I, Galileo Galilei, aforesaid have abjured, sworn, and promised, and hold myself bound as above; and in token of the truth, with my own hand have subscribed the present schedule of my abjuration, and have recited it word by word.

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 3:07 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Elusive Illusion

This is not what it appears to be. Can you figure it out?

Click here if you give up.

Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 2:34 PM  Comments (1)  
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